Tired of being told to don’t tell

June 11, 2009

Why is the Obama administration dragging its feet on "don't ask, don't tell," asks Elizabeth Schulte?

OPPONENTS OF anti-LGBT discrimination were outraged over the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on June 8 to reject a challenge to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy--especially since the decision was made possible with the help of a brief filed by the new Obama administration.

"He's a coward," said a furious former Army Capt. James Pietrangelo II, referring to President Barack Obama. Pietrangelo who was dismissed in 2004 under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, asked that the Supreme Court to look into the case after a federal appeals court in Boston threw out a case he filed with 11 other veterans.

During his presidential campaign, Obama said that he would end "don't ask, don't tell." In December, he maintained that he was "a fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans." In January, when press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked on the Obama transition team's Web site whether the new administration was going to get rid of the policy, he responded, "[Y]ou don't hear a politician give a one-word answer much. But it's, 'Yes.'"

Lt. Dan Choi, another victim of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" program, marches for equality in Fresno
Lt. Dan Choi, another victim of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" program, marches for equality in Fresno (Ashley Simmons | SW)

Now, the Obama administration isn't so quick with that answer. In fact, it's standing in the way of repealing "don't ask, don't tell."

The administration filed a brief calling on the Supreme Court to uphold the lower court's decision upholding the ban, asserting that it "rationally related to the government's legitimate interest in military discipline and cohesion," according to Obama's Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who represents the administration before the Supreme Court. Kagan was one of Obama's top choices to replace retiring David Souter on the Supreme Court.

The administration has made it clear it's in no hurry to act on "don't ask, don't tell." "The president, I know, will reach out to fully understand both sides or all sides of the issue before he makes a decision," said Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, in an interview on ABC's This Week. This time, when an Obama administration official was asked whether it would be repealed, the answer was "I don't know."

Featured at Socialism

Hear Elizabeth Schulte at Socialism 2009 in Chicago, speaking on "How Eugene Debs Became a Socialist." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

ACCORDING TO the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, established in 1993 under Bill Clinton, open gays and lesbians are prohibited from serving in the military. Rather than doing away with existing rules that discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, the Clinton administration kept the unfair treatment in place--but adopted new rules barring commanders from asking soldiers about their sexual orientation, or soldiers announcing this information.

There are, of course, many other ways for a service member's sexual orientation to come under scrutiny in the military.

Amy Brian was in the Kansas National Guard for nine years and served in Iraq. Now, she's under investigation after a civilian saw Brian, who was off-duty and not in uniform, kiss her girlfriend in a Wal-Mart near her home base in Topeka.

Since "don't ask, don't tell" went into effect, more than 12,500 soldiers have been discharged.

National Guard First Lt. Dan Choi was dismissed after he announced he was gay in March. Choi, a West Point graduate, is among dozens of Arab linguists who have been discharged under the policy. Now he is speaking out. In an open letter to the president, Choi wrote:

I have personally served for a decade under Don't Ask, Don't Tell: an immoral law and policy that forces American soldiers to deceive and lie about their sexual orientation. Worse, it forces others to tolerate deception and lying. These values are completely opposed to anything I learned at West Point. Deception and lies poison a unit and cripple a fighting force...

I will not lie to you; the letter is a slap in the face. It is a slap in the face to me. It is a slap in the face to my soldiers, peers and leaders who have demonstrated that an infantry unit can be professional enough to accept diversity, to accept capable leaders, to accept skilled soldiers. My subordinates know I'm gay. They don't care. They are professional.

Please do not wait to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Please do not fire me.

Choi's fellow West Point graduates are also speaking out and have started a group called Knights Out.

Public opinion has shifted since "don't ask, don't tell" went into effect some 15 years ago. A recent CBS News poll shows that 67 percent of Americans favor openly gay service people serving in the military, compared to just 42 percent in 1993. And a recent Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of self-described Republicans, and 60 percent of "weekly churchgoers," also support gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

Yet the Obama administration claims the time isn't right. As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote:

He should press the case by publicly reminding opponents of letting gays serve openly in the military that their arguments--it would hurt morale, damage cohesion and readiness, discourage reenlistment--are often the same, almost word for word, as the arguments made 60 years ago against racial integration in the armed forces. It was bigotry then, and it's bigotry now...

I'm not being unrealistic. I know that public acceptance of homosexuality in this country is still far from universal. But attitudes have changed dramatically--more than enough for a popular, progressive president to speak loudly and clearly about a matter of fundamental human and civil rights.

If he wanted to, Obama could issue an executive order that would stop gay service members from being discharged until Congress can repeal "don't ask, don't tell." This would be more in line with what supporters of equal rights expected when they celebrated Obama's election.

We have to organize pressure to make the Obama administration stop dragging its feet on LGBT rights--from "don't ask, don't tell," to repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. It's time to tell Obama that we're tired of waiting.

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