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In Historic Move, Senate Votes to Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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The Senate voted 63 to 31 on Thursday to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Eight Republicans joined with Democrats to approve the repeal and send the measure to President Obama for his signature. The bill passed in the House last week. We speak with former Navy commander Zoe Dunning. Until her retirement three years ago, she was thought to be the only openly gay person serving in the U.S. military. [includes rush transcript]

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StorySep 20, 2011“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Ban on Gay and Lesbians in the U.S. Military is Lifted
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a historic move, Congress has struck down the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. On Saturday, the Senate voted 63 to 31 to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Eight Republicans joined with Democrats to approve the repeal and send the measure to President Obama for his signature. The bill passed in the House last week.

The Senate passed the repeal after it overcame a Republican-led effort to block a final vote on the bill. As the debate opened on Saturday, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden urged his colleagues to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

SEN. RON WYDEN: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is wrong. I don’t care who you love. If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are. You ought to be able to serve. The history of our wonderful nation is spotted with wrongs, but this institution is at its best when it corrects them.

AMY GOODMAN: At first, Senator Wyden said he would not be there for the vote because he was doing tests for his prostate cancer, but ended up speaking on the floor of the Senate and did vote.

The most vocal opponent of overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. During the debate, McCain argued ending the ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces would be harmful to the military.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I hope that when we pass this legislation, that we will understand that we are doing great damage and we could possibly, and probably, as a commandant of the Marine Corps said and I’ve been told by literally thousands of members of the military, harm the battle effectiveness, which is so vital to the support — to the survival of our young men and women in the military.

AMY GOODMAN: But the vote to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was hailed by many across the country as an historic moment on par with the end of racial segregation in the military. The repeal will not take effect for at least 60 days, while some procedural steps are completed. In addition, the bill requires the Defense Secretary to certify the repeal. Until that time, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is still in effect. But the 17-year struggle to overturn it has finally been won.

The policy was first enacted in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. One of the first people to be targeted by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was Navy Commander Zoe Dunning. She came out publicly as a lesbian at a 1993 rally in support of a fellow servicemember who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” When the military tried to discharge her, as well, she fought back, arguing her sexual orientation was not conduct but was status. She won her case, but her defense strategy was later deemed unacceptable by military leaders, meaning she remained in the service but others were unable to use the same defense. Until her retirement three years ago, Zoe Dunning was thought to be the only openly gay person serving in the U.S. military. She has been advocating for a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for the past 17 years. Zoe Dunning joins me now from San Francisco.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Your response to this weekend’s vote?

CMDR. ZOE DUNNING: Well, obviously, this is a vote that I’ve been working for for a very long time, for 17 years. And it’s been a roller-coaster ride. We’ve had highs and lows. And I hit a new low when I was in the Senate gallery about 10 days ago and watched the Republicans successfully filibuster and prevent a vote on this issue, when it was attached to the defense authorization bill. And so, when they announced the stand-alone bill, I almost dared not get my hopes up again. But I am just ecstatic and elated that we were able to pass this legislation. We had tremendous leadership from Representative Patrick Murphy from Pennsylvania, Speaker Pelosi, Senator Harry Reid, Senator Levin and Senator Collins. It would not have happened without them.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain again how it was that you were able to serve openly in the military for, what, almost — well, more than 15 years.

CMDR. ZOE DUNNING: Well, my case was an exception, unfortunately. During this period of time that I was allowed to serve openly, we also had over 13,000 servicemembers who were being discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I was one of the very first test cases. And the way that the military writes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” they equate status with conduct. So if you make a statement that you’re gay or lesbian, they assume conduct, in sort of this bizarre legal fine — you know, fine print. And so, the purpose of your discharge hearing is to rebut the presumption that you engaged in conduct. Well, I refused to do that, because I felt that it was dishonest to do that, but you still had to make an attempt. And so, our attempt at doing that was to say, look, when I said that I’m both a lesbian and a naval officer, I was discussing my status, I was discussing who I am; I wasn’t talking about conduct. And the board of officers found unanimously in my favor that that was sufficient.

AMY GOODMAN: So you not only remained in the military, you were promoted from lieutenant to Navy commander. You remained there for more than 15 years. But as you pointed out, more than 13,000 people were kicked out of the military because they were gay or lesbian. Explain what happens now. It isn’t over today.

CMDR. ZOE DUNNING: It’s not over today, you’re correct. What we’ve done is we have cleared that last major legislative hurdle. There are a series of administrative steps. First of all, President Clinton — President — that’s a Freudian slip, President Clinton, because he’s the one who enacted the policy. President Obama needs to sign the bill. I’m actually flying to Washington, D.C. for that this week, to be present for that historic moment. After he signs it, there’s this certification process that was written into the bill. And so, none of this implementation can happen until the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the President certify that the military is prepared and ready.

There’s been some debate about how long this certification process will take. There are some that want it immediately; there are others that are worried that the Pentagon is going to slow-roll it. And there’s even rumor that they’re going to try to slow-roll it and push off certification for nearly a year. So we’re pushing very strongly to have certification done as soon as they’re ready, but — you know, within a month or two. And then, after that, there’s a 60-day waiting period before we can actually pull the trigger and say “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has officially been repealed.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, until that time, can people be kicked out?

CMDR. ZOE DUNNING: Absolutely. And that’s one of the warnings we want to give servicemembers who may be listening or watching. If you are currently in the military, are gay or lesbian or bisexual, it’s not safe yet to come out. They are still pursuing discharges. And so, you just have to hang in there and wait a little bit longer. And we’re doing as best we can to make that period of time when we have to hide who we are and pretend we’re something else come to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: And the position of Senator McCain, in particular, the man who said if there was a poll of the military leaders, he would do what they supported. They came out overwhelmingly in support of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” from Gates to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen and others, and yet he still refused to support it, Navy Commander Zoe Dunning.

CMDR. ZOE DUNNING: Well, it’s very disappointing. I have always admired, actually, Senator McCain for his service. But when he kept moving the goalposts, he would say, as you mentioned, “Once I hear from military leaders that it’s OK to repeal, I’m with them.” They said it. He backed off the claim and said, “Well, those aren’t the right military leaders. I want to talk to other military leaders.” And then he said, “I want to have a Pentagon study of this to find out what the impact is to those who are serving.” We did a study. We did a very expensive study. We surveyed hundreds of thousands of troops. We got their opinions. And then when the report came out, he said, “Well, that’s not the right study. That’s not the right questions” that we asked. “I want another study.” And so, it was just continuous delay and postponement of the inevitable.

AMY GOODMAN: The Marines, the Marine commandant has said he does not support this. There was overwhelming support in the survey of troops all over the world, except in the Marines. So, explain what happened there.

CMDR. ZOE DUNNING: Well, one of the things when you do a study and you have statistics is you can cherry-pick those which seem to support your argument. So, there is in the study a recognition that those who are Marines in forward-deployed units did state that they were not comfortable with repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” that they didn’t like that idea. But what’s important to see is what is actual experience versus what is hypothetical. And so, when you ask in a hypothetical, you know, “Do you think it’s a good idea? Do you think it would harm your unit?” you know, they did respond more negatively than positively, the Marines that were forward-deployed. But the important statistic from that study is if you talk to people who have actually served with someone that they knew to be or suspected to be gay or lesbian, actual experience, 92 percent of them said it had absolutely no negative impact to their unit’s effectiveness or morale.

AMY GOODMAN: Navy Commander Zoe Dunning, how will it feel to see gay men and lesbians openly talking about their sexuality in the military and not being kicked out?

CMDR. ZOE DUNNING: Well, obviously it’s a goal I’ve been pursuing a very long time. And I think, in reality, once this is lifted, you’re not going to have a mass coming out. I think most people just want to be able to come to work without fear that they’re going to lose their job that day.

When I was at a press conference immediately following the decision and the interviews were ending, a young man walked up to me, and he shook my hand and he looked me in the eye with tears in his eyes, and he said, “Thank you.” He introduced himself. He’s a Air Force airman. He’s been serving for 11 years. He’s done three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he just gave me a great big bear hug and cried on my shoulder and said in my ear over and over again, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And that’s who we did this fight is for. It’s for those young servicemembers who are putting their lives on the line overseas and making sure that we are respecting them and allowing them to serve without fear of losing their career for no other reason than their sexual orientation, which has absolutely no impact on their ability to do the job.

AMY GOODMAN: Zoe Dunning, retired Navy commander, thanks very much for being with us. Until her retirement in 2007, she was thought to be the only openly gay person serving in U.S. military.

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