President Barack Obama announced in his first State of the Union address last night that this year he will “work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love.” The president was referring to the law commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or DADT, which mandates the discharge of openly gay and lesbian service members regardless of how their sexual orientation became known.
The announcement was an important and historic step toward ending this outdated and discriminatory policy. The United States has discharged nearly 14,000 patriotic men and women from military service since the law was enacted more than 16 years ago. And it has led many thousands of talented gay and lesbian Americans to leave the services every year of their own volition or to not join at all. This is despite the fact the U.S. military needs every qualified service member it can get for us to complete our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As those returning from both theatres of war frequently attest, it doesn’t matter on the battlefield if you are gay or straight—it only matters if you can get the job done. A survey of 545 service members who served in Afghanistan and Iraq found that 73 percent are comfortable in the presence of gay men and lesbians.
Moreover, the American people recognize that the ban does not make sense: Recent polling shows that the American public supports repealing DADT by a 55 percent to 35 percent margin. Perhaps most importantly, no reputable or peer-reviewed study has ever shown that allowing service by openly gay personnel will compromise military effectiveness. Indeed, the militaries of some of the Unites States’ closest allies—including Britain, Canada, and Israel—have successfully integrated openly gay men and women into their ranks without incident.
There is enough evidence to confirm that reversing the ban on gay people in the military will not undermine unit effectiveness or unit cohesion—the primary reason cited in support of the policy.
Now that President Obama has set a goal of repealing the law this year, the administration should immediately begin planning for how—not whether—to overturn the ban. Those in favor of the status quo will undoubtedly note that there are numerous administrative questions that need to be answered before openly gay men and women can serve in the military. What will the military’s housing policy be with respect to openly gay men and women? Will partners of gay and lesbian service members receive the same benefits as straight service members? What laws regulating social conduct within the military must be updated to conform to the new policy?
To answer these questions, the administration should immediately appoint a high-level commission to study how—not whether—to implement a repeal of the ban on gay people in the military. Such a commission should be modelled after the Gates Commission, which President Richard Nixon established in 1969 to plan how to move the military to an all-volunteer structure. The president should give the commission authority to sort out the complicated legal and administrative aspects of the laws repeal, but he must provide clear leadership and guidance to ensure that the commission understands his objective of overturning the ban—an element that was sorely lacking from the working group President Bill Clinton established during his effort to repeal the ban in the early 1990s. He should also give the commission a six-month deadline to ensure the policy can be repealed this year.
Legislative action is required to repeal DADT permanently. Once the commission has given its recommendations, the president should use those recommendations to work with Congress to review and revise rules and regulations across the military for all service members—gay and straight—without regard to sexual orientation.
After eight years of war in Afghanistan, and almost seven in Iraq, we can no longer afford to keep talented and patriotic men and women from serving their country in the military solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.
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Sean Duggan is a Research Associate for National Security at American Progress.