After “don’t ask, don’t tell”

February 7, 2011

Ann Coleman looks at what's next in the future of the struggle for LGBT rights.

PRESIDENT BARACK Obama's 2011 State of the Union speech last week was a stark reminder of how far we still need to go to secure equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) people.

As expected, the last-ditch success in the 2010 lame duck session of Congress of a step toward non-discrimination in the military with the repeal of the discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy was highlighted in Obama's speech. So was a subtle plea to "stop expelling talented, responsible young" undocumented immigrants "who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation." This was a reference to the defeated DREAM Act, a proposal for limited legalization for a minority of undocumented immigrant youth.

The DREAM Act failed in the lame duck session, but both DADT repeal and the DREAM Act are only pieces of a bigger struggle to recognize all people as human beings worthy of equal access, opportunities, protections and freedoms.

The repeal of DADT was a significant victory and a 17-year battle. Unlike federal hate crimes legislation that passed in 2009, the repeal of DADT is a blow to the codified discrimination that helps to relegate LGBT people to second-class citizenship and that leads to broader discrimination and hate crimes. To force the US military, the largest employer in the U.S., to recognize gays and lesbians and allow soldiers to live their lives openly and unapologetically is a significant step forward.

Taking a stand at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C.
Taking a stand at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. (Lauren Miller)

But taking a look at how we got here and at what cost this step toward equality was taken is important in informing the next wave of LGBT and immigrant rights activism.

According to Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign, a lot of the credit should go to politicians and military brass. "This historic day would not be possible without the leadership of President Obama, Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen," he said. "In the U.S. House of Representatives, we are grateful to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Rep. Patrick Murphy for their dogged determination. And in the U.S. Senate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Sens. Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins, Kirsten Gillibrand and Mark Udall will go down in history as champions of this national security measure."

But the record shows that the credit belongs elsewhere.

Early in his term in office, Obama refused to use his power of executive order to reverse DADT--at the same time, he also distanced himself from another law that codifies and institutionalizes discrimination against LGBT people: the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Obama's Justice Department went to court to argue against legal challenges to DADT and DOMA. Every step of the way, Obama and other administration officials insisted that more time was needed, arguing that changing the abruptly "risks causing significant immediate harm to the military and its efforts to be prepared to implement an orderly repeal of the statute," according to the court documents filed by the Justice Department.

Not only was that statement far from "leadership" on LGBT equality, but it actually bolstered the myth that the majority of the population doesn't support LGBT rights.

Even the survey of military personnel conducted at the end of last year revealed what has been true for the general public for a number of years--a majority of the population thinks that people should not be fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation. In 1992, one year before the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was brokered by Rep. Barney Frank and put into place by then-President Bill Clinton, a Gallup poll found that 57 percent of people thought gays should be able to serve openly in the military. By 2010, that percentage had increased to about 80 percent.

THE TRUTH is that while repeal of DADT is a victory, discrimination against LGBT military personnel--and the fight against it--started long before DADT was put into law, and the repeal itself doesn't go far enough.

What's more, it wasn't the politicians who led on repeal. It was soldiers who dared to speak out year after year and take a stand against discrimination. It was direct actions, demonstrations and teach-ins that shifted public opinion, and it was the actions of a new generation of activists following Obama's election that pushed the urgency of our issues to the forefront and put the hope of a different future forward.

Activists need to highlight the limitations and contradictions of this gain. Most importantly, transgender people are still not allowed to serve openly in the military. Lesbian and gays in the military with partners and families can't take advantage of the medical and housing benefits that come with serving in the military. Undocumented LGBT immigrants in the military must remain in the closet for fear of deportation.

It is time to connect the issues between social movements, expose the contradictions along the way, and paint a picture of equality that goes beyond legal and legislative measures. We shouldn't allow the politicians to grant half-measures to LGBT people and deny even those to our immigrant brothers and sisters.

Equal rights legislation can do more to break down the myths supported by the corporate media and those who dare to use discrimination as political tools to drive a wedge through public opinion. We can't let our hopes and dreams of full equality be attached to increases in military spending--as was the case with both DADT and the DREAM Act--because the discrimination LGBT people face in employment and the racism involved in criminalizing immigrants in the US is connected to the discrimination and racism used to justify the "war on terror," whether in wars abroad or the war at home.

Obama also attempted to rewrite history in his State of the Union speech with his call for "college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation."

It was student demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early '70s that sparked the outrage against ROTC on campuses, and it was student and faculty pressure in the 1990s that continued to keep ROTC off some campuses because of the discrimination that the military imposed on LGBT people.

It is time to be fierce advocates and allies with those working to create the change they believe in--like the grassroots LGBT activists who are putting gender identity and expression at the center of their fight beyond the DADT repeal, and the immigrant students who continue their struggle for legalization.

These social movements can contribute to a wider struggle for the kind of change that can get at the heart of the exploitation and oppression which affects us all.

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