Rally against DADT, May 2010. (Photo: The Other Pete)
Like many other pieces of legislation, the fate of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) rests in the hands of the lame-duck session of Congress.
When the Senate Armed Services Committee announced that it would conduct hearings on December 2 and 3 on a report commissioned by the Department of Defense that looks at repealing DADT - the Clinton-era policy that bans openly gay, lesbian and bisexual members from serving in the military - it was a testament to the activists who have spent months and years advancing toward this moment.
The report, a year-long study of the impact of DADT's repeal on military cohesion and readiness, was compiled by the Comprehensive Review Working Group and released on November 30, in time for the Senate hearings.
DADT's repeal would keep President Obama at his word and let many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists check off another accomplishment on their long list of Congressional to-dos. The lame-duck session may be their last chance for at least another two years to repeal DADT, much less pass any kind of pro-LGBT legislation, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) told the Washington Blade. Fortunately, he adds, he expects both President Obama and the Senate to block any anti-LGBT legislation from advancing, a tactic that was also used during the Clinton era.
It's a far cry from six years ago, when anti-LGBT measures like same-sex marriage were front and center of the LGBT equality debate. While the fight for same-sex marriage is hardly under covers - especially with regard to the legal wrangling surrounding California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage - many pieces of legislation backed by LGBT organizations are now garnering support among a broad group of Americans.
Though same sex marriage still divides the nation, with polls putting advocates and foes within five percent of each other, legislation like DADT is a uniting force: according to a 2008 poll, nearly 75 percent of people oppose DADT.
The unprecedented push for vote by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), Defense Secretary Gates and President Obama to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the lame-duck session is a far cry from even a few weeks ago, when Democrats scapegoated LGBT voters, among other minorities, for their mid-term election losses. (Early exit polls reported that 31 percent of LGBT Americans voted for Republicans, though later analyses showed that only 29 percent of LGBT voters voted for Republicans. A Keen News Service study that looked at voting trends in predominantly LGBT neighborhoods barely saw a change in turnout over 2008 among other LGBT voters, however. Basically, this year, "We saw shifts among every demographic group toward Republicans," public opinion expert and New York University professor Patrick Egan told the Bay Area Reporter, "and gays were among them.")
Despite ridicule and numerous letdowns, LGBT activists have continued to push Obama toward his campaign platform when he has catered to the right. When activists have been displeased, they have shown it by taking to the streets, confronting politicians and even filing lawsuits when necessary. These activists are not just lamenting as they did in 2004; now, they are acting, too – and the media is taking notice.
Many believe they are part of a new civil rights movement. As such, they are not just stopping at one piece of legislation, but are demanding full equality under the law. And they have taken to employing an "inside-outside" strategy that, although not uniform, has creatively combined the work of activists who work with members of Congress with the work of those known for heckling them to loosely come together for the repeal of DADT.
For example, the newly formed GetEQUAL grassroots group was created after the 2009 National Equality March, which brought together a broad array of LGBT activists from around the nation for a march on Washington, DC. While the March organizers encouraged marchers to work with Equality Across America (EAA), GetEQUAL founders Kip Williams and Robin McGehee had their own ideas. While EAA created a 435 Congressional district strategy, according to their website, both Williams and McGehee "felt that the current political window was quickly closing and that to successfully push large legislative items … regional 'strike force' teams could be organized to take strategic action and apply pressure more quickly."
Since their formation, and with consultation from participants in other successful social movements, their actions have "shut down Las Vegas Boulevard, disrupted Congressional committee meetings, and heckled President Barack Obama at Democratic fund-raisers," according to The Advocate, which included the group in their "Best of 2010."
Or take Katherine Miller, an out lesbian and former West Point student who left in protest of DADT. Concerning her decision to quit, she told the AP, she had been concealing her identity and "realized that I wasn't becoming the leader of character that I wanted to be." If DADT is repealed, she recently revealed, she has her application ready to return, but until then, she is ensconced at Yale University.
While GetEQUAL and other activists work on the perimeters, many activists have taken the policy to the courts, and in light of the recent rulings on longstanding lawsuits, DADT is at its last breath. Backed by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and even the Log Cabin Republicans, the movement to repeal DADT has created activists who helped push for its repeal in federal courts.
In September, the US District Court for Western Washington ordered the Air Force to reinstate a nurse, Margaret Witt, who had been discharged under DADT. While Margaret Witt's case has been appealed by the Justice Department, it has not asked for a stay in her reinstatement. Although in this case the district court merely ruled for Witt and not explicitly against DADT, the ruling was still a blow to the policy.
But the most dramatic blow came with a ruling in a case brought before federal judge Virginia Philips by the Log Cabin Republicans, a LGBT Republican group which has pushed for DADT's repeal. In September, Philips ruled against the policy in a terse 85-page statement, concluding that DADT violates the Constitution. Philips ordered an immediate worldwide lift of the ban, though shortly thereafter an appeals court stalled it per the government's request.
As the Senate continues to hold hearings and the government appeals every judicial denunciation of the law, longtime activists like Alan Fann still believe that the time is right for DADT's repeal. Optimistically quoting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., he writes, "I have confidence, and am keeping my hopes up, because no matter the outcome, this will always be true: 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.'"
The repeal of DADT is just a priority on a long list of legal to-dos. But DADT's repeal will also show the strength of a civil rights movement that seeks what both King Jr. and Fann seek: justice.