Sensing a Key Moment for Gay Troops

Sensing a Key Moment for Gay Troops|Sensing a Key Moment for Gay Troops

Servicemembers’ advocacy group lobbies amidst growing disenchantment with ban

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, was supposed to show up at a Tuesday reception held by the Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN) after two days of lobbying Capitol Hill the group completed in support of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA), a bill that would overturn the ban on gays and lesbians in the U.S. military.

SLDN advocates for the ban’s overturn, as well as providing free legal counsel to military personnel affected by the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. Last December, the group filed a lawsuit on behalf of 12 gay and lesbian former military personnel challenging the constitutionality of DADT.

Even though she was delayed on the House floor, and never made her appearance, the fact that Ros-Lehtinen, one of Congress’ most conservative members would even consider attending such an event is indicative of the changing atmosphere around gays and lesbians in the armed forces. Ros-Lehtinen has even signed on as an MREA co-sponsor, along with at least 80s others, for a bill first introduced two months ago by Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan.

This positive momentum is finally paying off for SLDN. Every year for the past three years, SLDN has brought gay veterans to the Hill to talk with their representatives about the harm that DADT does to the military and its gay members. This was the first year any gay former soldiers were able to speak directly to members of Congress, rather than simply their staffs.

“At least they’re not making us stand in the hallway like last year,” said Noel Freeman, a former Air Force intelligence expert discharged for being gay in December 2000. Last year when he arrived for his appointment with Sen. Kay Hutchison, a Texas Republican, he never made it inside the office. He was told there was no conference space available.

First Lt. (ret.) Steve Boeckels had a 20-minute discussion with his senator, California Democrat Barbara Boxer.

As evidence of the military’s schizophrenic attitude toward its gay members, Boeckels was discharged in 2000 for violating DADT, and yet now is a West Point Academy recruiter. He is forbidden from wearing a uniform like other West Point recruiters even though his boss, a lieutenant colonel, has said he should do so.

Boeckels said Boxer committed to co-sponsoring a Senate version of MREA and promised to bring on board at least one Republican as an original co-sponsor.

This is all a far cry from 1993. That year, the initial excitement over former Pres. Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to lift the prohibition was crushed when Congress passed a law forbidding service by gays and lesbians. Previously, it had simply been a Defense Department policy.

The expected quick battle turned into a protracted war. Ten thousand soldiers have been discharged under DADT. Thousands more have quit promising careers because they objected to the policy or refused to serve under the constant threat of discharge simply for being gay. The country has elected a conservative president and Congress, which have both demonstrated at most points a decidedly hostile attitude toward the rights of gay Americans.

Yet, the news hasn’t been all bad. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Lawrence v Texas, that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional because they violated the fundamental right to privacy. More sweeping was the court’s opinion that a majority’s disapproval was not enough of a basis for any proscription against gays and lesbians.

The implications for DADT were immediately recognized.

This year, two military courts ruled that the Lawrence decision applied to the armed forces. Sodomy convictions against heterosexual soldiers have been overturned, and even in a gay sodomy case, a military court said Lawrence would have applied had there not been mitigating factors.

Responding to the changing interpretation of the law, the Pentagon recently asked Congress to alter the definition of criminal sodomy so that it doesn’t include consensual acts between adults. This might mean that eventually gays and lesbians in the military won’t be criminalized simply for who they are.

A rain of statistics has also bolstered SLDN’s arguments. In February, the Government Accounting Office released a report showing that DADT has cost the U.S. military well in excess of $200 million dollars in lost critical skills and retraining. Annual discharges have dropped by almost half since the war on terror began, which according to the ban’s opponents, demonstrates that the Pentagon knows gays in the ranks won’t degrade unit morale or harm combat readiness. Polls show that a majority of junior enlisted personnel, the very fighting force the Pentagon worries will be disturbed by gays among them, think gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve.

“All of these building blocks over 12 years have made MREA move much more quickly than we had ever hoped,” said C. Dixon Osburn, SLDN’s executive director. “We wanted 40 co-sponsors by this time. We have more than double that.”

What’s more, close allies have lifted their gay and lesbian ban. Gay British and Australian soldiers have served alongside Americans in Iraq. Israel allows gay soldiers to serve, and as is consistently raised in this context, no one would question the fighting effectiveness of the Israelis Defense Force.

“This does seem to be a pivotal moment,” Jeff Bateman, assistant executive director for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said in an interview. “Media coverage reflects popular support for lifting the ban. There’s a small but growing group within the military command that’s beginning to raise serious questions about it.”

But Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the place where any legislative overturn of the ban must begin, has refused to even hold a hearing on Meehan’s bill. Until he relents, MREA can only be a conversation piece, at best a tool for starting the conversation with legislators. Hunter has stated in the past that he believes the military should bar the entrance of gays and lesbians, instead of letting them serve as long as they remain in the closet.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, a gay Arizona Republican, addressing the 50-strong crowd at the reception said, “The American people get it. And it’s increasingly obvious to Congress that the policy doesn’t work.”

Kolbe said the resistance now is simply inertia. It’s easier for lawmakers not to change their public opinion than explain why.

“When we alter the debate so that people have to explain why they are not for the ban’s end, that’s when we will have won,” Kolbe said.