Senate Approves Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal

By a 65-31 vote, the US Senate on the afternoon of Saturday, December 18 voted to repeal the military’s 17-year-old Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy barring open service by gay men and lesbians.

Eight Republicans joined 57 Democrats in approving the measure.

The bill, passed by the House on December 15 by a 250-175 vote, was signed into law by President Barack Obama before a large gathering in an elaborate Interior Department ceremony December 22.

Obama signs measure into law on December 22 (updated)

The decisive vote actually came late Saturday morning, when the Senate, by a 63-33 margin, approved a cloture motion to block efforts led by Arizona Republican John McCain to keep the Senate from bringing the bill to a floor debate. During a cloture debate that lasted less than two hours and also included discussion of the Dream Act immigration measure, McCain sounded more weary and resigned than angry as he declared it was “a sad day.” The Arizonan, however, went on to repeat an extraordinary warning made earlier in the week by General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, who remained opposed to repeal action up to the end.

“Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines lives,” Amos told Stars and Stripes, the independent military news outlet, in an interview published on December 14. “I don’t want to lose any Marines to the distraction. I don’t want to have any Marines that I’m visiting at Bethesda [National Naval Medical Center, in Maryland] with no legs be the result of any type of distraction.”

Under Senate rules, after the Democrats achieved cloture, the repeal measure could have faced a debate running up to 30 hours, but that would merely have been a prelude to inevitable passage. In fact, the final vote took place at 3 p.m., less than four hours after opponents had their hopes of filibustering the bill shut down.

President Barack Obama, undoubtedly buoyed by the chance to deliver a big victory for the LGBT community, issued a statement saying, “Today, the Senate has taken an historic step toward ending a policy that undermines our national security while violating the very ideals that our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to defend…. As commander-in-chief, I am also absolutely convinced that making this change will only underscore the professionalism of our troops as the best led and best trained fighting force the world has ever known.”

The president added, “It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor, and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed.”

Obama singled out for praise the efforts of Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada as well as Connecticut Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and Maine Republican Susan Collins, who introduced a stand-alone repeal bill after efforts to open debate on the annual Pentagon spending bill, with language ending the policy, failed for the second time on December 9.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a leading repeal advocacy group, hailed the Senate’s action, but also noted that the repeal provisions approved include a requirement that the president, defense secretary, and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all certify that military readiness, effectiveness, morale, and retention will not be compromised before the policy comes to an end. In addition, Congress then has 60 days to review the new procedures, though it has no authority under the repeal law to overrule them.

“Gay, lesbian and bisexual service members posted around the world are standing a little taller today, but they’re still very much at risk because repeal is not final,” Sarvis said. “I respectfully ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to use his authority to suspend all Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell investigations during this interim period. Until the president signs the bill, until there is certification, and until the 60-day congressional period is over, no one should be investigated or discharged under this discriminatory law.”

The White House referred a question on that issue to the Department of Defense. Major Monica Bland, a Pentagon spokeswoman, responded, “Until 60 days after certification, the law commonly known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell remains in effect, and the Department of Defense will continue to apply the law as it is obligated to do.”

Since the language for DADT was hammered out by the White House and Democratic congressional leaders in May, SLDN has argued that the exhaustive study undertaken by a special Pentagon Working Group — and delivered on November 30 — lays the groundwork for completing the needed certifications rescinding the policy in a matter of two or three months.

In Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on December 2 and 3, however, Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chair, emphasized that their certification would reflect a deliberate approach toward planning the policy change. Their comments suggested that Sarvis’ caveats are well-placed.

Robin McGehee of GetEQUAL, a direct action group harshly critical of the legislative language in the repeal measure — for the conditions requiring certification before repeal is implemented — also noted that activism must continue to hasten that day.

“We’re one step closer to repealing the ban on open and honest service for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans,” she said. “Make no mistake — DADT is not yet repealed. There is still work to do. There is still a long process ahead, but we vow to keep the pressure up until the policy is fully and completely repealed.”

Other advocates led with an unambiguously celebratory tone.

“Today, America lived up to its highest ideals of freedom and equality,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington-based LGBT lobby group. “Today, our federal government recognized that ALL men and women have the right to openly serve the country they believe in.”

Former Army National Guard Lieutenant Dan Choi, who participated in numerous GetEQUAL civil disobedience actions and was also critical of the conditions incorporated into the legislation, told CNN, “They’re saying finally, the government is saying that we’re taking steps closer for you to access your integrity, and that’s why it’s amazing.”

In his repeal activism over the past 21 months, Choi consistently emphasized that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell forces gay and lesbian services members to lie in violation of their obligation to serve with honesty and integrity.

Richard Socarides, a former aide to President Bill Clinton who has frequently criticized the current administration for not moving aggressively on LGBT issues, told Gay City News, “I think President Obama deserves a lot of credit.” Socarides, who on December 20 announced the formation of Equality Matters, an LGBT communications war room affiliated with Media Matters, added that he hopes and expects the president will extend the existing sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy that covers civilian employees of the federal government to the military.

The November 30 report from the Pentagon Working Group that examined repeal recommended no specific anti-bias protections based on sexual orientation, and neither the White House nor the Defense Department offered any view on that question.

The Log Cabin Republicans, which earlier this year won an important court victory against the anti-gay policy in a federal district court in California, noted the role of GOP senators in the victory, praising Collins for her sponsorship of the measure and the other seven Republicans who voted yes — Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, John Ensign of Nevada, Richard Burr of North Carolina, George Voinovich who is retiring from his Ohio seat at the end of this year, and Mark Kirk, the newly seated senator from Illinois.

Ensign and Burr voted against the cloture motion, but then joined the majority on the up-or-down vote.

R. Clarke Cooper, the group’s executive director, said, “Log Cabin Republicans are proud of our Senate allies who have voted to make our military stronger.”

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand — who played a critical role in pressing for the February Armed Services Committee hearing where both Gates and Mullen acknowledged that DADT was neither a necessary nor a defensible policy — said, “We’ve lost more than 13,000 of our best and brightest to this unjust and discriminatory policy. By repealing this policy, we will increase America’s strength — both militarily and morally.“

As the Senate prepared for its final vote in the wake of the successful cloture motion, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement saying, “After a bipartisan vote in the House, the Senate is now primed to honor the American ideal of equality, recognizing the contributions all Americans have to make to the defense of our nation.”

Pelosi offered particular praise for Pennsylvania Democrat Patrick Murphy, a two-term Iraq War veteran who was the legislation’s key advocate in the House. Murphy lost his bid for reelection last month.

Approval of the bill in the lame duck session was essential since the Republicans take control of the House in January.

All but one of the Democrats voted yes. West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who was elected to the seat vacated by the death of Robert Byrd, a repeal supporter, did not vote.

The other three senators who did not vote were Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, and Orrin Hatch of Utah.