12/22/2010 01:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Many Lessons of DADT Repeal

There is little dispute that the repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy, which forced 14,000 patriotic servicemen and women out of its ranks, marks a transformational moment in equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. While some are hailing this historic vote as a spring board, the seemingly endless setbacks and detours that confronted the repeal effort also underscore how difficult it is to turn social change into legislative action.

Many observers, particularly progressives, believed that repealing a policy that nearly 80 percent of Americans thought was wrong would and should be relatively straight forward. After all, the country was in two wars and what sense did it make to drum out talented members of the military for something as irrelevant as their sexual orientation?

As one of many involved in repealing DADT, I can report that this was a legislative, military and communications roller-coaster that often seemed headed for the rails. Repeal was pronounced dead many times, most recently just days before its historic House and Senate passage. Repeal failed to move before the mid-term elections when conventional wisdom declared that period our best window, and then it failed again as part of the defense budget authorization, a tactic Congressional supporters long believed was the safest and best vehicle.

That it finally carried in the final days of a lame duck session as a stand-alone measure can be attributed to several factors: strong bipartisan leadership, ironically, time itself, which brought heightened focus on critical swing Senate votes, and, most of all, it rested on the incredible power of veterans' stories.

For in the midst of all the loud clamoring on the outside and quiet maneuvering on the inside, it was hard to give much credence to the heightened panic of Senator John McCain who warned that soldiers could be injured in battle by the distraction of openly gay service members in the trenches. Really? Try telling that to veterans like former Marine Sergeant Eric Alva, a gay man, who lost his leg and nearly his life on the very first day of the Iraq war.

As a community, we have come to value the power of simple story telling. We saw it first in Massachusetts, earlier in the decade, when there was a legislative challenge to same-sex marriage. What moved legislators then is what moves the American public on this issue today: regular people stepping forward who share the same concerns of good schools, a strong community and healthy kids. Or, just as often, it's an older gay or lesbian couple struggling with health and financial pressures who can't turn to a compassionate federal government because their marriage isn't recognized.

I was struck earlier this year by a young, gay HIV-positive man in Indianapolis who said he never cared about marriage but now he gets it. His partner of 10 years has lost his job and because they're not viewed as a married household, he's forced to pay out-of-pocket for his expensive HIV medication. The government looks at his $35,000 salary and sees a single man, not a family coping with the ravages of this economy. And because there are no employment protections in Indiana for LGBT workers, he worries that he can be fired simply because he's gay.

Is this the country we want? I think not. But as we celebrate the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and look ahead, there are right-wing leaders anxious to motivate a new Congress. The American Family Association says the country is "now stuck with sexual deviants serving openly." The Freedom Federation and the Stand America PAC promise a fight to reinstate DADT in the next Congress. The National Organization for Marriage has already promised to push for a federal constitutional amendment to stop the incredible movement in the states toward family protections, relationship recognition and yes, same-sex marriage.

To thwart these sore losers and make additional gains for LGBT Americans, we'll need to keep telling our stories and keep reaching across the aisle to fair-minded Republicans and Independents like Senators Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman, who simply would not back down and brought new allies on-board. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Representative Patrick Murphy are also worthy of our gratitude.

Turning social change into federal action is often a slow slog. But I would hope, as Congressman Barney Frank has said, that there might be greater resistance to those who claim social disorder whenever the country removes discrimination from the books. Prejudice should never be rewarded and the apocalypse is never realized. We should know that by now.

Joe Solmonese is the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest civil rights organization dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.