"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall." Succinctly, President Barack Obama set the stage for a moment like none other in inaugural history. Millions around the globe heard him recognized the struggle for equality of his fellow gay Americans, as equivalent to the historic fight of women and African-Americans for their civil rights. But this was just the teaser, moments later, "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well." 224 years of the Republic and for the first time in an inaugural speech the gay community was recognized as being part of the fabric of our nation. Historic.
A Promise Made
Yet, this was nothing new. President Obama had long-supported LGBT rights and considered himself a "strong advocate" for change. While recently "evolved" on the issue of marriage equality, he has been unequivocally clear on how important it was to the nation, and the gay community, to repeal the un-American law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT). During his first campaign for the office of president, reversing this law was one of the key components of his platform. As early as November 2007 he committed himself to repeal:
The eradication of this policy will require more than just eliminating one statute. It will require the implementation of anti-harassment policies and protocols for dealing with abusive or discriminatory behavior as we transition our armed forces away from a policy of discrimination. The military must be our active partners in developing those policies and protocols. That work should have started long ago. It will start when I take office.
A Promise Kept
Like Bill Clinton before him, President Obama learned quickly there were many forces aligned against him in his efforts to advance LGBT equality in the military and fulfill his promise to repeal DADT. In spite of resistance from many in Congress and the Department of Defense (DoD), President Obama used his bully pulpit to keep this issue front and center in the conscience of the American public. While some in the LGBT community were critical of the president for not issuing an executive order and taking a stronger leadership role in passing repeal legislation through Congress, he followed what became his modus operandi during his first administration. He waited for a groundswell from the grassroots prompting the congressional leadership to take action and shepherd a bill through the complex congressional legislative process. And it worked. On December 18, 2010, during the lame duck session of the 111th Congress, DADT repeal passed in a manner that could best be described as "a miracle."
A Promise Unfulfilled
As candidate Obama recognized in the 2007, in order for repeal of DADT to be successful, the military and its leadership at the DoD would have to be part of the process. Military buy in was essential. But there was a price to pay. Some of those involved in the repeal negotiations argued that in order to gain enough support for the repeal legislation from members of Congress with close connections to the military and civilian leadership of the DoD, long-standing language providing discrimination protection for LGB service members had to be removed from the final DADT repeal bill, and it was. Red flags went up in the LGBT community.
In addition to the need for military buy-in, President Obama also understood it was essential to establish "the implementation of anti-harassment policies and protocols for dealing with abusive or discriminatory behavior." Many in the LGBT community shared his concern and feared that after the repeal of DADT, the discrimination, which had been part of military culture since the beginning of the Republic would, without this protection, continue unabated.
In response to this concern, the DoD contended any statement of nondiscrimination was unnecessary because the military leadership would treat LGB service members with dignity and respect, and where legally possible, provide them and their family members with all the benefits and privileges afforded their comrades in arms. According to the DoD, there would be no second class citizens in the military. This is a promise unfulfilled.
Failure of Leadership
Before giving a green light to the president and Congress for the repeal of DADT, the DoD conducted one of the most extensive personnel policy reviews in its history. In itsvoluminous report the Pentagon recommended that those benefits for LGB service members and their families, not running afoul of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), be reviewed after repeal and implementation.
After two years of repeated requests to the DoD by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN -- now OutServe-SLDN) to provide these benefits there has been no action by the DoD.
Where does the blame lie for this inaction? The Secretary of Defense has not even responded to these written requests and his spokesperson has stated over and over again that they are "studying" the issue. Ultimately though, the responsibility lies at the feet of the Commander and Chief, the very person who recognized the problem as a candidate when he first ran for office. Although he never specifically addressed these benefits, they are inexorably intertwined with the need for protection against "abusive or discriminatory behavior."
Real People, Real Consequences
There were over 14,000 casualties during the 17-year fight for equality leading to the repeal of DADT. These were real people, many still suffering from PTSD, and having difficulty finding employment because of the nature of their discharges. While this hemorrhaging has stopped, in spite of the DoD promise to the contrary, the discrimination feared by many continues. It manifests itself in many ways, from what may be considered by some to be trivial, to the profound.
What dignity and respect was shown to Lt.Col. Heather Mack and her wife, Ashley Broadway, when the Army leadership supported the position taken by the Ft. Bragg Officers Spouses Club to initially reject Ashley for membership and then offer her "guest" membership?
Recently returning combat veteran, First Lt. Nakisha Hardy and her wife signed up for an Army spiritual retreat designed to help soldiers and spouses cope with the pressures of deployments and separation. They were asked by a chaplain to leave this family support group because other members of the group were uncomfortable. Is this how chaplains are to "perform or provide" support for all service members?
How many more spouses must suffer through the indignity experienced by the wife of Staff Sergeant Donna Johnson who was killed in action by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan? Unlike her fellow spouses, identified as next of kin, and provided all the support necessary to deal with such a tragedy, Sgt. Johnson's wife didn't even receive the flag from her wife's coffin.
Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, struggles to survive everyday as she fights the ravages of terminal cancer. Unlike her comrades in arms, whose spouses will be taken care of by a grateful country, Charlie worries every day about what will happen to her wife and daughter when she dies.
No Excuses -- No Delays -- Action Now
How many more casualties are acceptable in this fight for equality? As I watched President Obama sign executive orders on gun safety last week, and after the inauguration ceremony those orders appointing his new cabinet members, it was clear he had the means to partially remedy this injustice.
Unlike the repeal of DADT, requiring legislative action, the president has the authority to take immediate action -- steps already requested by LGBT advocates since repeal of DADT, that are simple and straightforward. He should sign an executive order or instruct the Secretary of Defense to include the phrase "sexual orientation" in the DoD Human Goals Charter, and provide all family benefits that do not run afoul of DOMA.
The time for inaction has passed. While some counsel patience, justice delayed is justice denied. President Obama can, and should, immediately take this next step to fulfill his promise that "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law." There is nothing standing in his way to fulfill the promise of justice.