Last night, President Obama gave the strongest signal yet that he is serious about seeing the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' law repealed -- and soon. In his first State of the Union address, amid a highly charged political environment, the President declared his intention this year to "work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are." And in an unscripted moment during the thunderous partisan applause that followed, he added, "It's the right thing to do."
There was certainly no new position articulated in that one-liner, and it was conspicuously lacking in specifics, to the chagrin of many gay activists and bloggers, but to focus on what it was not is to shamefully underappreciate what it was -- an unequivocal message to Congress, to the Pentagon, and to the American public, during the biggest political speech of the year, that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is now a White House priority that the President intends to fight for in 2010.
The past year's rhetoric on the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' issue from much of the progressive community has been disproportionately focused on the President, while sustained pressure on pivotal moderates in Congress has been lacking. Perhaps it's simply easier to direct all of one's effort and fury at one person instead of towards 535 people, or at least the handful of holdouts. Regardless, much work remains to be done on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and the window of opportunity for getting that ball rolling -- and rolling on the right track - is a narrow one.
Organized opposition to repeal of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' law has been dwindling, but it is still grossly underestimated. With most moderate lawmakers and large swath's of the American public, the other side enjoys incumbency advantage, and it is the herculean task of repeal advocates to dislodge nearly two decades of relatively successful framing of the issue's image and rhetoric by the opposition.
One of the major framing issues faced by repeal advocates is that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' still sounds very rational and fair to many -- no one will ask you, and as long as you don't go around throwing your private life in everyone's face there won't be a problem. This common misinterpretation of the policy is what also leads many young gay and lesbian recruits, including myself at one time, to believe that life under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' won't be so bad. The more accurate name for the policy, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Happen to Get Found Out, Any Time, Any Place, In Any Way,' doesn't fit too easily into headlines and sound bites.
Another lingering misconception in the minds of many is the belief that "homosexuality" is simply a behavior as opposed to an orientation. This makes a big difference when one ponders the question, "Do you believe that homosexuality is compatible or incompatible with military service?" If one is posed that question, but really hears, "Do you believe that homosexual [behavior] is compatible or incompatible with military service," then it becomes a little easier to understand why someone - say, the Joint Chiefs - might answer "incompatible," especially when it comes to "open homosexuality."
In this vein, what the President's 2010 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal effort will need is not so much to have the progressive masses clicking away to send off hoards of generic action alerts and phone calls to staff assistants, but a much more targeted effort to get moderate numbers of the right constituents to engage in frequent, substantive conversations with mid-level and senior staff, and occasionally the members themselves.
While it will always be important to have a diverse cadre of advocates involved in this work, as there simply aren't enough LGBT and progressive veterans to go it alone, it will be particularly imperative, however, that all pro-repeal veterans strongly consider making a special effort in 2010 to get actively involved in the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal movement.
The analogy now could not be more apt. The Commander-in-Chief has given the order. We cannot do this alone; it's all hands on deck. We're calling up the reserves. Heck, we're even calling up the IRR. And the first volley of the last battle over 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was just fired -- at the State of the Union.