Marriage Activists Discuss “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Repeal
Say We Have the Right to Be in the Military, but Shouldn’t Do So
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTO: President Obama signs the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal bill into law. Courtesy of the White House.
“When you hear it’s repealed, you think of all the cool actions you could have done,” said Kelsey Hoffman of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) at the beginning of their January 11 meeting in Hillcrest regarding the bill passed in the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress to repeal the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military.
“I think it was a significant victory,” said attorney and S.A.M.E. member Ann Menasche. “It’s taken about 30 to 35 years — and now that it’s repealed, I’m going to be out there persuading people not to join.”
That paradoxical attitude was common among S.A.M.E. members and progressive Queers in general. Throughout the history of the U.S. military’s anti-Queer policies — the outright ban on Queers in the military that lasted until early 1993 and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that replaced it — progressive Queer activists and their straight allies have wrestled with the issue. It’s been a dilemma because they’ve seen how important equal access to military service is as a civil-rights issue — but most of them are also peace activists who fundamentally object to what the U.S. military does.
One S.A.M.E. member summed up the dilemma when he said, “I have very mixed feelings. It’s increasing the military-industrial complex, but it’s also a good way of getting our voices out there.”
Other members noted that the bill passed in December 2010 doesn’t actually get rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell” once and for all. “It’s voting to start a process towards repeal,” said S.A.M.E. president Cecile Veillard. “Yes, it will be a huge victory when it’s final, but I’m just unimpressed with the pace of it. Why did it take so long? I’m also wondering how we get the next step [towards Queer equality] in a presumably Right-wing climate. So far, the Congress has said we’re good enough to fight and die in the military, but not to get married or hold other jobs.”
“I’m really surprised; I didn’t think it was going to happen,” said Chuck Stemke, a member of S.A.M.E. and the International Socialist Organization (ISO). “We have organized bigotry in this country … and if the Right is allowed to keep [a straight monopoly in] institutions like the military and marriage, that’s how they think they can keep control of people’s minds.”
“S.A.M.E. wasn’t born in response to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but I’m glad we took that as part of our demands,” said José Medina. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ has killed people, including Seaman August Provost (found dead on the U.S. Marine base at Camp Pendleton in June 2009 in an apparent anti-Queer hate crime).” Medina took pride in the four events S.A.M.E. either organized or participated in to demand repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” including protests at the Federal Building and the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, a Harvey Milk Day action in Coronado and the “Patriots’ Pride” event in Oceanside. He also expressed the hope that “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal will make it easier to win marriage equality.
“I wasn’t particularly involved with ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Sean Bohac, “but two significant events helped bring it about: the lawsuit filed by our friends in the Log Cabin Republican Club and high-profile activism by GetEQUAL and Lieutenant Dan Choi (a Gay Arabic-speaking linguist, fired under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ who has announced he plans to re-enlist as soon as repeal is completed). I wonder if people outside the activist sphere recognize those names as much as I do. We could probably learn something from them.”
“I don’t believe we’d have seen ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repealed in 2010 if not for the Gay revolt in 2008 and the constant pressure [from the activist community],” said Zakiya Khabir. “There are Gay and Transgender people in the military right now. It’s a huge blow against discrimination, and probably the most significant civil rights legislation we’ve ever achieved.”
Other people were concerned about the limitations of the bill Congress passed. Felicity Bradley complained that it still does not allow Transgender people to serve openly. Lisa Kove, civilian employee of the U.S. Department of Defense and executive director of DOD FED GLOBE (http://dodfedglobe.ning.com
), an organization that works for the rights of Queer servicemembers and government employees, said she was “involved with every part of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal, including negotiations behind the scenes.” Kove said she wants to see the Log Cabin Club continue their lawsuit to have “don’t ask, don’t tell” unconstitutional because the law just passed “does not set up a timeline” for repeal.
Indeed, Kove said that on both “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and marriage equality she’s got stronger and more powerful support from Queer Republicans than Queer Democrats. She said the Log Cabin Club enthusiastically supported the actions targeting Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republicans’ 2008 Presidential candidate, for his opposition to “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, while their counterpart, the National Stonewall Democrats, ducked any direct action on the issue. Kove announced that she’s leaving the Democratic party and changing her registration to “decline to state” so she can work with members of both major parties on Queer rights issues.
The U.S. military’s policies towards Queers have evolved slightly over the years but have always been motivated by prejudice and fear — though, as anti-“don’t ask, don’t tell” activists have pointed out, the rationale for excluding Queers from military service has changed over the years. Through most of the post-World War II period there was an absolute ban on Queers in the military — though sometimes there would be so-called “stop-loss orders” during actual wars so Queers would be kept in the ranks and not discharged until the wars ended and they were no longer needed as cannon fodder.
By the late 1970’s, excluding Queers from the military was pretty much left to the authority of local commanders, which meant that some units had open Queers serving without being hassled or threatened with discharge while others had witchhunts and threw them out en masse. When Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, commanders were ordered to throw out anyone they found or suspected of being Queer, whether they wanted to or not. Activists filed lawsuits and at least one servicemember, Perry Watkins, won an order demanding that the Army let him back in after having discharged him for being Gay.
In his 1992 Presidential campaign, Bill Clinton promised to repeal the ban on Queers in the military, but once he took office he reneged and agreed to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as a compromise with opponents in the military and in Congress. The full name of the policy was “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t harass, don’t pursue,” and it theoretically provided that Queers could serve in the U.S. military as long as they didn’t disclose their sexual orientation either publicly or to other servicemembers.
It was also designed to prevent the military from actively investigating and identifying Queer servicemembers to discharge them, but according to Queer activists, that part of the policy was never implemented. Queer-related discharges from the U.S. military actually increased during the first five years of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the rate of discharges only started to slow when the U.S. got involved in a two-front war in Afghanistan and Iraq and once again needed Queers as cannon fodder.
Just as a series of lawsuits had targeted the ban on Queers in the military in the late 1980’s and led to concerns that a court would throw out the policy, a new round of lawsuits challenging “don’t ask, don’t tell” was filed in the late 2000’s. These actions, of which the most famous were the Log Cabin Club’s and Dan Choi’s, led some military leaders to decide that a bill from Congress starting a year-long process to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” was preferable to leaving the policy in place and risking a court decision that would order the military to eliminate it immediately.