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'Don’t ask, don’t tell' vote marks crossroads in gay rights fight

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2010-09-22

The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the US military loathed by left-wing activists and opposed by US President Barack Obama moves closer to extinction on Tuesday as the Senate votes on whether to allow debate on a repeal of the policy.

Supporters of a repeal of the US military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy got an unexpectedly glittery boost on Monday when international pop star Lady Gaga took to the stage at a rally in Maine to speak out against the measure.

"If you are not honourable enough to fight without prejudice, go home," she shouted, calling on the state’s two Republican senators to join Democratic colleagues on Tuesday in voting to allow debate on defence legislation that includes a repeal of the law. In the hours before the session, Democrats were still not sure they had the 60 votes needed to move forward with the military authorisation plan, which includes the provision to abolish “Don’t ask, don’t tell”.

The showdown is set to be a key crossroads in the history of the US gay rights movement, as a policy long hated by left-wing activists and opposed by US President Barack Obama could move closer to extinction.

An increasingly unpopular policy

“Don’t ask, don’t tell”, made law in 1993, limits the military's rights to ask soldiers about their sexuality and allows homosexuals to serve as long as they don’t reveal their sexual orientation or engage in homosexual acts. The policy was conceived as a compromise after President Bill Clinton failed to overturn a ban on gay soldiers.

Since 1993, more than 12,000 gay service members have been discharged when their sexual orientation was revealed by either themselves or other soldiers.

Defenders of the policy say it prevents army units from being undermined by conflict and tension, particularly during periods of military engagement (such as the current operations in Afghanistan). Many high-profile Republicans, such as Senator John McCain, argue that no repeal should be voted in Congress before a military review of the policy is completed in December.

Others on the right, including moderate Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have stated that they oppose the policy. Still, they say they will likely vote with other Republicans on Tuesday against proceeding with debate on the broader defence bill that contains the provision to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, since Senate Democrats have refused to allow Republican amendments to the measure.

But the movement to repeal the policy, an act which requires congressional approval, has gained momentum. Obama’s opposition to the law was one of his campaign’s progressive rallying calls, and he, along with Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, have been vocal in their position that it discriminates against patriotic US citizens willing to risk their lives for their country.

The House of Representatives voted in May to rescind the law, and a federal judge in California in September ruled "Don't ask, don't tell" to be unconstitutional. Meanwhile, polls have shown the majority of Americans to be in favour of gays serving openly in the military.

A moment of truth for a movement and a president

The US gay rights movement has made the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” one of their priority issues. Activists have been critical of what Darrell West, a government scholar at the Brookings Institute, says they consider “foot-dragging on the part of Obama and an unwillingness to push hard on needed reforms”.

Many have also expressed disappointment with what they see as the president’s evasive stance on same-sex marriage. He has called for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) - which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage - and has said he is in favour of civil unions with full federal benefits. But he has maintained that he is not in favour of same-sex marriages, while allowing that his opinion could change.

Others have called for patience with Obama, who has nevertheless enacted several small-scale but significant reforms that address concerns of the LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community: he made it a federal crime to assault someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity, expanded some federal benefits and granted hospital visiting rights to same-sex partners. He also allowed employees in same-sex relationships to take leave from work to care for a partner’s child, even if the worker is not a legal guardian.

Now the fight to revoke “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has taken on new urgency, as it becomes increasingly probable that Republicans will win a significant share of seats in upcoming midterm congressional elections. Backers of the repeal say that if they get the 60 Senate votes they need to move forward on debate without Republican obstruction, they will ultimately have the votes to overturn the policy and send the bill to Obama for signing.

According to Fred Sainz of Human Rights Campaign, the largest US gay rights advocacy group, this would be a “fairly significant accomplishment for [Obama’s] administration”. But in an interview with, Sainz was careful to point out that Tuesday’s vote was a procedural vote to ensure that the repeal continues on its path – not yet the final step.

Still, the moment was crucial, Sainz said. “It is critically important that this vote take place,” he noted. “If not, 17 years of hard work will be deferred another day”.

Date created : 2010-09-21

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