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Christopher Neff

Christopher Neff

Posted: May 26, 2010 10:51 AM

What Does Victory on Don't Ask, Don't Tell Look Like?

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There has never been a law and policy quite like 'don't ask, don't tell.' It is uniquely bad, which is saying something for Washington. In 1993, it was called an 'interim compromise.' And yes, it certainly did compromise our military and American values. It tried to look reasonable but never was. It is, and always has been, centered on federally approved discrimination. It wrote into law that there was something inherently bad about being gay, lesbian or bisexual; it was fundamentally incompatible with military service.

A very simple and resilient point.

One of several tipping point moments for 'don't ask, don't tell' came in 2002. President Bush nominated Major General Robert Clark to be promoted to three stars. He was running Fort Campbell when Pfc Barry Winchell was brutally murdered in 1999 for being perceived as gay. This led to three important moments: staff was hired to lead a campaign against the ban; minor defeats were transformed into winning strategies; and bills were drafted and redrafted to repeal the current law.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network hired me in 2002 to be the first full time lobbyist for the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.' At that time, I was low-level, young and had an attitude. But that was about right considering that 'gays in the military' was still considered radioactive on the Hill and had been since 1993. It's easy to forget that in 1993 the vast majority of the public discussion of this issue ­ and public perception -- was about submarines, showers and straight male anxiety aka 'gay panic.'

Yet we were marching into the Senate to oppose a Flag Officer's nomination, something incredibly rare and procedurally unheard of. Over eighteen months, Barry Winchell¹s parents did all the heavy lifting. Arm in arm with Senator Kennedy, they met with more than a dozen Senators on the Armed Services Committee to talk about Barry, discuss the climate at his base and to make sure everyone knew there was nothing wrong with being gay.

We learned what winning on 'don't ask, don't tell' would look like from the two people who knew what it meant to lose it all. This was not going to be a battle of inches or egos. It was about changing an institution so that it was clear to every enlistee and every officer that being gay was good. Good for the military, its families and its values.

This path would mean learning when winning meant compromising. The nomination would be delayed, but go through. Major General Clark would become Lieutenant General Clark. But changing an institution takes steps. In this case, winning meant changing the way every officer, in every service, treated gay troops under their command. Clark would be forced to go through two closed door executive sessions to earn his star. When the secret vote for his nomination in committee was called for, it was objected to. A voice vote by committee members would be forced to take place. This would be followed by four hours of debate on the Senate floor regarding the nomination and the value of gays in the military. This compromise was not defeat. It was a catalyst and had us drafting repeal legislation before the end of the year.

Now we see the new deal announced on repeal this week, modeled off the grit of 2002 and the language of 2004. And I can still see Pat and Wally, Barry Winchell's parent walking down the halls of the Senate. Is Senator Lieberman's amendment a compromise? Yes. However, that is not the question. The question is, is this bill a step toward allowing gay people to serve openly because they can do the job and because there is nothing wrong with being gay? The President has answered this question himself.

President Obama spoke directly to the nation, if a bit off the script, during his State of the Union, stating 'It's the right thing to do.' Admiral Mullen followed suit unequivocally, making the moral case for inclusion of gay, lesbians and bisexual people in the military. And now the repeal compromise on the Hill does the same. Now it is our turn to walk down the halls. The letter and spirit of this legislation makes a very simple and resilient point that there is nothing wrong with being gay in the U.S. military. It may not be everything, but it is victory.