SLDN Urges Military Anti-Bias Order from Obama

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), the lead lobby group in Washington that has worked on repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy, sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the Armed Forces based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Signing legislation that allows for repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a necessary first step, but it is not sufficient for ensuring equality in the military,” Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran who is SLDN’s executive director, wrote in the February 9 letter. “We call upon the president to issue an executive order so that sexual orientation and gender identity are not barriers to applying for a job or advancing in your career.”

Sarvis’ letter said such a policy should become effective the day the bar on military service is phased out. Under legislation the president signed on December 22, DADT repeal will be effective 60 days after Obama, the defense secretary, and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff jointly certify that the changes entailed will not compromise military effectiveness.

At the time the president signed the repeal legislation, the White House referred Gay City News to the Pentagon for comment on any plans for a nondiscrimination policy. Major Monica Bland, a Defense Department spokeswoman, told the newspaper, “In his testimony regarding Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the following position: ‘The military’s a meritocracy, where success is based on what you do, not who you are. There are no special classes, no favored groups. We may wear different uniforms, but we are one.’”

In a statement on February 9, however, the White House offered a more nuanced response on the issue of nondiscrimination protections for gay and lesbian soldiers.

In an email reply to a Gay City News request for comment about the SLDN letter, White House spokesman Shin Inouye wrote, “The Department of Defense has developed clear policy guidance that will take effect on the date of repeal of DADT… The policy guidance makes clear that ‘all Service members, regardless of sexual orientation, are entitled to an environment free from personal, social, or institutional barriers that prevent Service members from rising to the highest level of responsibility possible.’ The guidance states that harassment or abuse based on sexual orientation is unacceptable, and that any deviation from this standard will be dealt with through command or inspector general channels. The release of the policy guidance is an important step toward implementing repeal of DADT.”

The November 30 report from a special Pentagon Working Group that examined issues related to repeal acknowledged that the Armed Services’ Military Equal Opportunity Program recognizes prohibited “unlawful discrimination” that applies to five specified classes — race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

The report however, went on to borrow a “special rights” lens long a thorn in the side of LGBT equality — and also to conflate somewhat the issues of affirmative action and nondiscrimination — in stating: “We believe that, to maximize the opportunities for a smooth and successful repeal, perceived ‘equal treatment’ of all Service members is key. Throughout the force, rightly or wrongly, we heard both subtle and overt resentment toward ‘protected groups’ of people and the possibility that gay men and lesbians could, with repeal, suddenly be elevated to a special status. For example, a common question was whether, if the law were repealed, there would be affirmative action to recruit gay men and lesbians? While much of this sentiment is based on misperceptions about equal opportunity policy, we believe that, in a new environment in which gay and lesbian Service members can be open about their orientation, they will be accepted more readily if the military community understands that they are simply being permitted equal footing with everyone else, pursuant to general principles of military equal opportunity applicable to all Service members. This is consistent with the views and aspirations we heard from current and former gay and lesbian Servicemembers: that they are not seeking special treatment, just asking the Department of Defense to ‘take [the] knife out of my back,’ as one gay Service member put it.”

The Pentagon report provided no specifics on how they measured gay and lesbian service members’ attitudes on this point.

President Bill Clinton issued a nondiscrimination policy of the type SLDN is seeking for all civilian employees of the federal government during the 1990s.