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Repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: A Year in the Making

Ending This Policy Is a Major Achievement

SOURCE: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen speaks about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on September 20, 2011, during a news conference at the Pentagon.

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This week last year, Congress voted for and President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that repealed the military’s ban on openly gay service members, otherwise known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or DADT.* Our country’s military leaders, policymakers, and scores of repeal advocates have worked tirelessly over the past year to make open service a reality in our armed forces, which finally went into effect this past September.

With DADT’s demise, our country will no longer squander hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars enforcing an unpopular policy that weakened our military readiness and our national security by asking gay service members to live a lie. Gay men and women in all branches of the military are finally able to serve their country openly, honestly, and with integrity after years of serving in silence.

Our military leaders—including President Obama, Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen—are to be commended for their leadership throughout the repeal process. Members of Congress from both political parties should also be commended for passing the DADT repeal law last December.

But even with this success, work remains to be done. Gay service members and their families are not afforded the same benefits, protections, and security as other service members under current laws and regulations. Still, conservatives continue to play politics with our national security by working to pass antigay laws that would hurt service members, their families, and our armed forces. Going forward, policymakers should take action to level the playing field for gay service members in a post-DADT military.

Opponents’ dreadful predictions didn’t come true

Our country is safer and our military is stronger as a result of this significant policy change.

During the repeal debate in 2010, however, conservative opponents consistently trumpeted the argument that open service would lead to a mass exodus of troops opposed to repeal, and that it would also push away potential recruits opposed to open service.

Data show that these opponents were completely wrong. Recent reports from the Department of Defense show that each branch of the military met its recruitment goals for fiscal year 2011—most of which took place after President Obama signed the repeal bill into law—and actually exceeded their initial recruitment goals in 2011. All branches also met their fiscal 2011 retention goals, with the sole exception of the Air Force, which “only” achieved a retention goal of 96 percent.

The Defense Department’s numbers—as well as pre-repeal opinion polls of the troops themselves—show that open service never posed a threat to recruitment and retention. If anything, open service strengthens our military’s ability to recruit troops by expanding the pool of potential recruits to include the thousands of gay Americans willing to serve their country.

It also strengthens our military’s retention of soldiers by not forcing otherwise qualified troops out of service simply because of their sexual orientation.

Further, DADT repeal strengthened the armed forces by aligning military policy with military values. The ban on open service forced gay troops to lie about themselves, their families, and who they were in order to remain in the military. This clearly undermined the military’s core values of honesty and integrity, which in turn undermined military readiness and effectiveness.

DADT further compromised unit cohesion by asking service members to intentionally mislead their fellow troops and superiors about their sexual orientation. With the policy off the books, gay men and women can now serve openly without violating their and the military’s core values, and they can focus solely on completing the mission at hand.

Policy changes to reflect a post-DADT military

The Obama administration and the Department of Defense already made a number of policy decisions regarding open service.

The Pentagon recently clarified that military chaplains, if they so choose, are allowed to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies in states where marriage for gay couples is legal. The Pentagon also indicated it will not collect, request, or maintain any data about service members’ sexual orientation. And it has maintained that creating separate bathroom facilities or living quarters based on sexual orientation promotes a “separate but equal” culture that is ineffective, inappropriate, and unnecessary.

The Department of Defense is continuing to examine many of these issues as it develops appropriate regulations and guidance going forward.

Members of Congress also worked this year to level the playing field for gay service members in a post-DADT military. Per the Pentagon’s recommendations, the Senate passed a version of the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act earlier this month that eliminates the outdated provisions of the military code that continue to criminalize sodomy.

Conservatives’ tiresome assault on troops continues

Conservative members of the House, on the other hand, continued to play political games with our national security by inserting irrelevant antigay amendments as part of the House version of the NDAA.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) said that he would rather see Congress fail to pass a defense authorization bill for the first time in a half century than pass a bill that failed to include language restricting military chaplain’s freedom to officiate same-sex weddings in accordance with their faith.

The House passed its version of the FY 2012 NDAA earlier this year and included such a provision, as well as other antigay amendments that hurt troops, their families, and our military as a whole.

At a time when our country is fighting two wars, our elected officials should work to enhance our national security and support our troops and their families, not inject distracting social amendments into this year’s authorization bill.

Fortunately, Congress passed a final NDAA bill last week that did not include the House’s antigay amendments. But the amendments that would have repealed the military’s antisodomy laws were also stripped from the final bill.

Remaining issues with open service

Finally, even with open service a reality, it is important to recognize that going forward, gay service members and their families still do not have equitable access to the same benefits, protections, and security as other service members under current laws and regulations.

For example:

  • Gay service members and their families do not have equal access to certain military benefits such as health care, dental care, and basic housing allowances (among many other benefits). These benefits are currently afforded to straight service members and their families.
  • Many service members previously discharged under DADT received “less-than-honorable” discharge statuses, which are normally reserved for members discharged for misconduct relating to drug or alcohol abuse, for example. Their discharge status may also indicate they were discharged for being “homosexual.” Both of these indicators will impair service members’ ability to secure employment in the civilian world.
  • Military rules and regulations continue to bar otherwise qualified transgender individuals from serving in the armed forces.
  • The entire military continues to operate under antiquated antisodomy laws, which have historically and disproportionately affected gay Americans (but also apply to straight service members as well).

Going forward, policymakers should take action to level the playing field for gay service members in a post-DADT military. Rather than revisiting a history of denying gay servicemembers the ability to serve, our policymakers should instead do what they can to extend the rights, benefits, and protections to openly gay servicemembers and their families.

Fit to serve

Gays and lesbians have long served their country with honor and fidelity. With DADT now fully repealed, they can now do so openly and honestly. One year ago, members of both parties came together to repeal DADT. And one year later, our military is now stronger, our nation safer, and our country a more perfect union as a result.

*In this column, the term "gay" is often used as an umbrella term for people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Crosby Burns is Special Assistant for LGBT Progress at American Progress.

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