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In Historic First, Military Leaders Call for Repeal of Ban on Openly Gay Servicemembers

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For the first time, the Pentagon’s top leaders have called for an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military policy barring gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. We get reaction from Alexander Nicholson, a former Army intelligence officer who was discharged for being gay, and Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. [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: We begin today’s show looking at the controversy over the US ban on openly gay men and lesbians serving in the military. On Tuesday, the Pentagon’s top leaders voiced support for the first time for an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military policy that bars gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. The comments from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came less than a week after President Obama called for the policy to be repealed during his State of the Union address.

Tuesday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also backed repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” but said the Pentagon needs a year to review the policy change.

It remains unclear whether President Obama has enough votes in Congress to push the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” through Congress. On Tuesday, Senator John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, expressed his opposition to the policy change.

To talk more about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I’m joined by two guests. Alexander Nicholson is a former US Army human intelligence collector who was discharged in 2002 under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He’s the founder and executive director of Servicemembers United, a national organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans and their allies. He joins us from Washington, DC. Here in New York, Nathaniel Frank, senior research fellow at the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Palm Center and author of the book Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America.

Why don’t we begin with Alexander Nicholson, a former US Army human intelligence collector. You were discharged in 2002. Tell us where you worked, what you did, and how exactly you were, well, fired.

ALEXANDER NICHOLSON: Sure. Well, I was, as you mentioned, a human intelligence collector, more colloquially known as an interrogator. I was stationed at a tiny little intelligence base out in the middle of the desert in Arizona called Fort Huachuca. And in the period immediately after 9/11, obviously, we were doing a lot of things. I think the Army and all of the intelligence fields were scrambling to figure out its mission and how it was going to accomplish that mission in a new era, in the post-9/11 world. So it was very hectic. It was very chaotic. And it was very stressful.

And I was basically outed within my unit by a colleague who happened to know that I was gay. A couple of people, after a year in the Army, had found out that I was gay through various means. And one of my colleagues happened to let that information get out and spread within the unit. And the command was, essentially, backed into a corner from which it was forced to discharge me, because that information had leaked out.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you working?

ALEXANDER NICHOLSON: I was working on Fort Huachuca in the US Army Intelligence Center and Schools.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Mike Mullen for a minute, testifying yesterday, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was quite astounding what he had to say.

    ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Mr. Chairman, speaking for myself, and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity, theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We’re going to go right now to Secretary Gates. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also testified over the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

    ROBERT GATES: The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it. We have received our orders from the Commander-in-Chief, and we are moving out accordingly. However, we can also take this process only so far, as the ultimate decision rests with you, the Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Secretary of Defense, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Nathaniel Frank, you’ve been looking at this issue for a long time. You wrote the book Unfriendly Fire. Talk about what Mike Mullen’s words meant, how unusual and significant they were.

NATHANIEL FRANK: Well, a lot of us have been waiting for quite awhile to hear him speak directly on this issue and issue his opinion, because in 1993, and subsequent to that, General Colin Powell, who was the chair at the time that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was formulated, helped kind of provide a wall of resistance to President Clinton’s effort to lift the ban that existed then. And he was one of a very few number of very powerful people who ensured that Clinton failed.

When Admiral Mullen said what he said, it was quite astonishing how powerfully he came out and said — although he did say it was his personal opinion, and he also balanced it with the point that he didn’t know exactly what would happen if we lifted the ban. But he said very clearly, in no uncertain terms, not only that he personally believed it was right, but that he had full confidence that our troops could carry out this transition, which is what I’m fully confident about, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever think you would hear the two heads of the military, head of the — chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary Gates, who also served under George W. Bush, say what they did yesterday?

NATHANIEL FRANK: I have to tell you, I was very worried about what we would hear. I had some confidence from what I had been hearing that these two men didn’t have fierce personal opposition to lifting the ban, and not just personal in terms of, you know, moral values about equality, but that they understood, as many of us who have studied this for awhile understand, that all the research suggests, that this is something that can be done rather cleanly. And this is the way — you know, these announcements, that are very unequivocal, are very important, although there is some concern still about the timetable, because that delay could cause problems.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to 1993. You mentioned Bill Clinton. This is a short clip of then-President Clinton defending “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

    PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: An open statement by a servicemember that he or she is a homosexual will create a rebuttable presumption that he or she intends to engage in prohibited conduct. But the servicemember will be given an opportunity to refute that presumption — in other words, to demonstrate that he or she intends to live by the rules of conduct that apply in the military service.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathaniel Frank, talk about his position in 1993.

NATHANIEL FRANK: Well, President Clinton, you know, in my book, he doesn’t come out as the villain. You know, Colin Powell and Sam Nunn were really the wall of resistance. President Clinton did want to lift the ban; he did try to lift the ban, and he spent a considerable amount of political capital on it. But as was his tendency, he also was triangulating. He was waffling and wavering at a certain point. He was trying to please all parties. And he seemed to believe, as many Democrats did at the time, that in order to win over the military, you sort of had to get down on your knee and plead for their respect, rather than earning it by showing that you could command the military as commander-in-chief, which is why it was heartening to hear Secretary Gates this week say, “We have received our orders from the Commander-in-Chief.” And I think it’s important that President Obama seemed to have gotten his ducks in a row and, you know, consulted them, but also discussed it in a way that would make clear that these were his orders. And if Clinton had come to this issue armed with a confidence that he really was the commander-in-chief, that he had that authority and that he had reason and research on his side, I think he could have gone further.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to an angry John McCain, senator of Arizona, who was fiercely taking on the military leaders yesterday.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Has this policy been ideal? No, it has not. But it has been effective. It has helped to balance a potentially disruptive tension between the desires of a minority and the broader interests of our all-volunteer force. It is well understood and predominantly supported by our fighting men and women. It reflects, as I understand them, the preferences of our uniformed services. It has sustained unit cohesion and unit morale, while still allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country in uniform.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator McCain yesterday, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. But let’s go back to 2006. He was on Chris Matthews’ show on MSNBC when Matthews was doing his college tour, and he was questioned by a college student in the audience.

    STUDENT: As we just demonstrated, our military needs as many fine young men and women as it can get.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Yes.

    STUDENT: So, why do we still have a policy that discriminates on the basis of declared sexual orientation?

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We have to have the most effective and professional military that we can possibly obtain. I listen to people like General Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and literally every military leader that I know, and they testified before Congress that they felt that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was the most appropriate way to conduct ourselves in the military, a policy that has been effective. It has worked. Our all-volunteer force — and this is another argument against the draft — is the finest military we have ever had in our history. We have the most qualified, the bravest and the most capable military we’ve ever had in our history. And so, I think that the policy is working.

    And I understand the opposition to it, and I’ve had these debates and discussions. But the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, “Senator, we ought to change the policy,” then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it, because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was the same senator, Senator John McCain, in 2006, saying if the military leadership recommends this, then he would support this, and yet, yesterday, defiantly opposed to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I want to get the reaction of both Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, and Alexander Nicholson, former US Army human intelligence collector who ended up founding Servicemembers United after he was thrown out of the military for being exposed as gay.

This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: As we look at this really remarkable day in US history, the day that the military leaders said they no longer support a ban on gay men and lesbians in the military. They don’t support the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that was put into place under President Clinton, our guests are Nathaniel Frank, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, and Alexander Nicholson, with us in Washington, former US Army human intelligence collector, founder and executive director of Servicemembers United.

Alexander Nicholson, you heard John McCain yesterday, and then you just heard him in 2006. What is your response — in 2006 saying he would support whatever the military leaders felt was an adequate policy for gay men and lesbians, and now defiantly opposed to the repeal that the military leaders support?

ALEXANDER NICHOLSON: I thought it was very fair of McCain all along to want to listen to the senior military leadership and to get their input. I think that’s very reasonable.

I was there at the hearing yesterday when McCain said that. I was sitting in the front row, in fact. And, you know, it just sort of drove home the point that Senator McCain is just so out of touch, I believe, with the modern military. You know, to say something like “don’t ask, don’t tell” works and is successful is just so beyond the reality that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is on the ground.

And to say something like — I mean, this was a new one — to say that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was well understood throughout the military, I mean, many people in the audience just sort of laughed when he said that, because it just went to show that he was just so out of touch with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” you know, because you have a state of arbitrary and capricious enforcement of the law within the military. You have everything from people being witch-hunted and outed in very deplorable ways to the law being completely ignored. You have understandings that fall everywhere on the spectrum, from you can discharge someone based on rumor and suspicion to you have to have someone basically committing a homosexual act in front of you to actually have credible evidence to discharge them. So, to say something like “don’t ask, don’t tell” is well understood throughout the military just goes to show that Senator McCain is so out of touch with the modern military and just does not have an understanding these days of what the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy really has become on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: And interestingly, it sounds like maybe out of touch with his wife Cindy McCain, who, well, I don’t know about her position here, but has just come out with an amazing ad supporting gay marriage in California. Nathaniel Frank, your response? He’s the ranking Republican leader on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

NATHANIEL FRANK: Well, I think Alex is exactly right, and he put it well, in terms of Senator McCain being detached from the reality on the ground.

It’s hard to know where to begin with him. I think he was visibly angry yesterday. But his inconsistencies are difficult to understand. You know, you wonder if it’s personal. Historically, he’s not been known as being, you know, the most anti-gay Republican lawmaker. We know he has high-level gay staff. And yet, this seems very personal to him. Of course, he’s facing, you know, a difficult political landscape. And so, it’s not clear to me if this is a personal or a political decision, but it’s certainly irrational.

And to say that this works — I mean, two-thirds of servicemembers already know or suspect gays in their units, and the other third are kidding themselves if they really think that they’ve never shared quarters with a gay person. So the policy has failed at its most basic goal, which was to shield servicemembers of knowledge of gay people. And not to mention all of the costs, in terms of talent, money and morale for gay people. So it’s a complete failure. It’s hard for him to say otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, Alexander Nicholson, when I was watching one of the networks having a discussion about this, the anchor said, “Well, what about separate barracks? If you’re going to have this policy, don’t you need to separate the gay men and lesbians from the other soldiers?” The idea of close quarters, your response to that?

ALEXANDER NICHOLSON: You know, I would honestly say that I believe that, too, sort of reflects a lack of knowledge of the reality on the ground with respect to gays in the military. You know, it’s a well-established fact that there are already tens of thousands of gays and lesbians within the military. They’re already, you know, living with other soldiers. They’re already showering with other soldiers. They’re already, I mean, fighting and dying alongside other soldiers. Many of them, in fact, thousands — we know from personal experience and obviously from working within the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal movement now, thousands of them are already openly gay, are already out within their units, with the knowledge of their commands in many cases, and it’s not a problem. So, you know, we already have a test of this sort of, you know, hypothesis that there’s going to be a negative impact in unit cohesion, morale and combat readiness going on within the military right now. And it just goes to show and prove that things like that really wouldn’t be necessary.

And, you know, I wanted to say, too, that — you know, you brought up Cindy McCain — I’ve actually spoken to their daughter, Meghan McCain, before about this issue. And of course, you know, Meghan McCain has been, you know, out there on a number of progressive causes and supporting gay marriage, and she obviously supports gays in the military. But the interesting thing, too, is that she told me that her two brothers, John McCain’s two sons, who are both in the military, are completely supportive of repeal. And so, I think John McCain is not only out of touch with modern society and the modern military, but he’s evidently out of touch with the opinions of his two sons who are on the ground in the military right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And his daughter and his wife. Nathaniel Frank, go back in history. Explain the history of the policies towards gay men and lesbians in the military.

NATHANIEL FRANK: Well, a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which was the service-wide ban on homosexual conduct, as they call it, dates from the Carter era. It was a Carter policy that was implemented at the very end of his — or it was formulated at the end of his administration, and so it was implemented right at the beginning of the Reagan administration.

And in 1992, Clinton campaigned on lifting that ban and, because of all the fierce opposition among the religious right and military leaders and certain conservatives in Congress, including Democrats under whom this policy was actually implemented — Senator Sam Nunn, in particular — threatened to write the ban into law for the first time. So before that, it had just been a Pentagon policy. And so, there were months and months and months of debate and delay, which is why there’s some concern about the delay this time that’s being discussed, and —-

AMY GOODMAN: And talk, just for a minute -—


AMY GOODMAN: — a little more about that delay that’s being discussed right now.

NATHANIEL FRANK: Well, I think President Clinton and some of the gay advocates who were working with him to lift the ban underestimated the nature and the fierceness of the opposition, culturally, politically and militarily. And Clinton, not knowing quite what to do, called for a six-month study period, which sounds eerily familiar to today, even though the — you know, the times have changed and the military, you know, with Mullen and Gates’ position, is much more supportive of reform, which is good news. So, President Clinton, in January, the week after he was inaugurated, called for a six-month study period, commissioned the famous RAND study, which recommended repeal; also commissioned a military working group, which was the military generals and admirals, just six of them, to give their opinion.

You heard McCain say something about the military feels this is working. It’s not about what they’re feeling. This is about research and objective reason. And the military itself has been looking at this since 1957. Their own studies show that it works, and each time they read these studies, they try to bury them. So there’s enormous research. President Clinton said, “Let’s look at the research. Let’s commission more studies.” They didn’t read the studies last time; they’re not going to read them this time. During that period, the problem was it opened up a window for obstructionists to stir up resistance, to sow fear and doubt and anxiety, which is, you know, a conservative tactic that has worked well for them, and then the compromise was made with Congress and Clinton to do this “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

So we’ve certainly come further than that, and I’m hopeful, but there are alarm bells going off about a replay, with the idea of, you know, they’re updating the RAND study. Well, the RAND study already said very clearly that this can work and how to do it, which is to do it quickly and cleanly. So I’m not sure that the update is going to say.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathaniel, how do other countries do it?

NATHANIEL FRANK: There’s twenty-five countries that let gays serve openly. And they did it quickly and cleanly. In Britain, Canada, in particular, there were court orders, and in a matter of months, the policy was overturned. And studies by our own research center, the Palm Center, as well as those militaries themselves, the Ministry of Defense, hailed this as a solid achievement. Everywhere, it’s been a no-impact policy change.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Britain do it?

NATHANIEL FRANK: Well, there’s two —-

AMY GOODMAN: And when?

NATHANIEL FRANK: It was a 1999 court decision and then, at the end of ’99 and the beginning of 2000, it was done. Obviously, there were guidelines. There were some months of implementation, transition.

But how they did it was looking at the research, that shows two important things: one, consistent signals by leadership that they’re behind this -— and we’re beginning to get that from our own military; and two, a very simple uniform code of behavior for everyone. And if you follow those two principles, you will find — and if you do this quickly and cleanly, rather than having a series of new policy initiatives every six months, which causes confusion and concern, then it will work.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s possible that, as with President Clinton, this will actually not happen?

NATHANIEL FRANK: Well, I think the big question is what will happen in Congress. I think what the Pentagon is doing — and I applaud them for it — is to look at what latitude they have within the law, because, remember, there’s a law and a policy. They’re very similar, but they have slight differences. Within the law, the Pentagon has a lot of latitude to apply this differently and to minimize discharges, and that’s what they look like they’re doing. In Congress, it’s unclear when they will get with the program. But I think as the Pentagon modifies enforcement, it will be harder and harder for people like McCain to holler that openly gay service is impossible, because it’ll be right in front of him.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, the concern about gay men and lesbians being in units with other men and women, that they — the suggestion is they would prey on them, when there’s a tremendous problem of sexual harassment and assault in the military, but it’s overwhelmingly heterosexual. Alexander Nicholson, how do you deal with this? How do you talk about this?

ALEXANDER NICHOLSON: You know, I think one of the good things that “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal would do within the military, that I think — you know, perhaps it’s not really considered yet, but I think will have positive effects in other ways — is that it will sort of gender-neutralize the sexual harassment issues within the military, you know, because right now, I mean, equal opportunity training within the military tends to really focus on male-on-female sexual harassment. And obviously we know that that’s, you know, the majority of the cases, but it also tends to foster a lot of discontent within the military, especially, you know, among the males in the military, who see themselves as always being portrayed as the villains. And, you know, I think when you take the gender issue out of the sexual harassment training and the equal opportunity training within the military, you’re just going to have an emphasis on, you know, it being improper for one person to sexually harass another in any way, shape or form. And I think that’s going to have effects in other ways, as well. It’s going to take some of the tension and some of the discontent out of the equal opportunity training and policies and programs within the military.

AMY GOODMAN: It might surprise a number of people, Alexander Nicholson, to know that under President Clinton, for example, beginning with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which was supposed to be a softer policy, more gay men and lesbians were thrown out of the military. You represent an organization of gay men and lesbians, troops, veterans, allies, who have been thrown out. Can you tell us some of their stories now and what will happen now?

ALEXANDER NICHOLSON: Well, sure. You know, I mean, as you mentioned and as Nathaniel could tell you very well, there was definitely a spike in not only discharges, but just overall attention around the issue within the military in the early ‘90s, when this issue came up. And, you know, it definitely has an effect when the issue comes up in the media and it’s talked about within the ranks, it’s talked about on the job. You know, it tends to have sort of a heightened — gives people a heightened awareness of the issue of gays in the military and of, you know, the people who are gay and lesbian among them.

But in terms of the stories and experiences of those who, you know, not only are members of Servicemembers United, but work with other organizations, as well, you know, I mean, people — the experiences range the entire spectrum. You know, we have people who work with us, like Jarrod Chlapowski, who’s with the Human Rights Campaign now, who served completely openly for five years and never had a problem, was open to all of his peers, his command, and no one ever moved to discharge him, to people like a Coast Guard — a member of the Coast Guard who was, you know, severely beaten up, harassed by his roommates, when they found out he was gay.

And, you know, I think part of the problem with that is that the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the law really sends the message that the military, as an institution, condones that type of behavior, that there’s something bad about being gay, that it needs to be hidden, and if it comes out, then it becomes fair game for a lot of that behavior. But, you know, experiences really range, range the entire spectrum. And you could find, you know, from the absolute best cases to the absolute worst cases, which sort of goes back to the point that, you know, “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been a complete failure, in the way Nathaniel was talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow this policy and the whole debate. Alexander Nicholson, former US Army human intelligence collector, founder and executive director of Servicemembers United, which is an organization of — a national group of gay and lesbian troops and veterans. And Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, he is a research fellow at the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Palm Center.

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