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“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Ban on Gay and Lesbians in the U.S. Military is Lifted

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“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is no more. The military’s longstanding ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers officially expired at 12:01 a.m. EDT earlier today. Congress passed a repeal of the ban last year, but President Obama had deferred its implementation until military leaders gave their approval. The Pentagon now says it will no longer enforce the ban, meaning gays and lesbians can openly serve. We play excerpts from voices we have had on the program over the years speaking out against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” including Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran who was eventually discharged under the ban. We also speak with Aaron Belkin, author of “How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’” “The big difference for the troops on the ground,” says Belkin of the victory’s impact for military personnel, “is just that they can utter the words 'I am gay' without being fired.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is no more. The military’s longstanding ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers officially expired at 12:01 a.m. Eastern time. Congress passed a repeal of the ban last year, but President Obama had deferred its implementation until military leaders gave their approval. The Pentagon now says it will no longer enforce the ban, meaning gays and lesbians can openly serve.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” began 18 years ago after President Bill Clinton backed off a campaign promise to end the military’s discrimination against gay and lesbian servicemembers. Billed as a so-called “compromise,” “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” allowed gay and lesbians to serve, but only if they hid their sexual orientation. More than 13,000 people have been expelled from the armed forces since the law went into effect in 1993.

I want to go to some of the voices of the gay and lesbian servicemembers we’ve had on Democracy Now! over the years speaking out against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” We begin with Lieutenant Dan Choi. In October 2009, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Washington in the largest demonstration for gay rights in the nation’s capital in over a decade. Lieutenant Dan Choi addressed the crowd, a West Point graduate, Iraq war vet, who was eventually discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

LT. DAN CHOI: Like so many others, I joined the military because my country beckoned me. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” But when we’re telling the truth about our love, our country slaps us in the face and orders us, “Don’t ask,” and orders us, “Don’t tell.” Well, I am telling you that the era and the time for asking is over. I am not asking anymore! I am telling! I am telling! I am telling! Will you tell with me?

Asking is over. We will tell, because in the face of injustice and the face of discrimination, patience is not a plan. In the face of discrimination, silence is not a strategy. My plan today and my plan tomorrow and my plan forever is to tell, is to tell. And we will tell! We will tell! We will tell!

AMY GOODMAN: Alexander Nicholson is a former U.S. 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.

ALEXANDER NICHOLSON: 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.

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.

AMY GOODMAN: 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.”

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: Navy Commander Zoe Dunning and, before her, Alexander Nicholson and Dan Choi. Both Nicholson and Choi were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” while Dunning was thought to be the only openly gay person serving in the U.S. military until her retirement. She had avoided a discharge after successfully using a defense that was later disqualified for all ensuing cases.

For more on this day that marks the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I’m joined from Washington, D.C., by Aaron Belkin, author of the newly published book How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. He’s also associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University and director of the Palm Center.

Aaron, welcome to Democracy Now! The significance of this day?

AARON BELKIN: It’s a big day. The first soldier fired for being gay was 233 years ago, drummed out of the Continental Army in 1778 for sodomy. It’s taken more than two centuries to get to today, and it is—it’s a big win for the troops, but more importantly, a big win for the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what exactly does it mean? Do all of those people who have been dismissed over these years—I mean, since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in particular, went into effect, we’re talking some 13,000 people. Do they get to reenlist? Will they automatically be accepted?

AARON BELKIN: Not necessarily. At any one time, there is a pool of people trying to get back into the military. And so, if you were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” you’re going to be eligible to become part of that pool without prejudice, but that doesn’t mean that the military will take you back. It may be the case, especially since we are downsizing now, that the military might not need a particular servicemember.

AMY GOODMAN: At this point, the number of people who are being accepted in the military, recruiters, what are the questions they get to ask?

AARON BELKIN: Well, it’s really—I mean, this is a broader question than recruiting. But the broader point is that it’s going to be business as usual for everybody in the military, including recruiters. Recruiters were not asking people if they were gay yesterday, and they won’t be asking people if they’re gay tomorrow. The big difference for the troops on the ground is just that they can utter the words “I am gay” without being fired.

AMY GOODMAN: In October of 2010, Democracy Now! hosted a debate on whether the movement against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was helping to legitimize U.S. militarism at home and abroad. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is an antiwar queer activist and writer. She was debating Lieutenant Dan Choi, the discharged servicemember who was a leading voice opposing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” This is what Mattilda had to say.

MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: Dan Choi talks about all of America being a victim of the policy of excluding openly gay soldiers in the military, but all of the world is a victim of the U.S. military. So if we have to look at one culprit for all of the problems that are going on in the entire world, that would have to be the U.S. military. And as a queer movement, what we need is a movement for gender, sexual, social, political and cultural self-determination for queers in this country, for everyone in this country, and for everyone all over the world. We do not need to support the U.S. war machine, which is busy plundering indigenous resources and fighting at least three wars right now, you know, for corporate profiteers.

We need to be fighting for universal access to basic needs, things like housing and healthcare and the right to stay in this country or leave if you want to. We need to be fighting for comprehensive sex education, for AIDS healthcare, for senior care, for safe houses for queer youth to escape abusive families. And the problem with all this attention on the war machine, all this support for, you know, soldiers to serve openly in unjust wars, the problem is that the military is what’s taking away the ability to fund everything in this country that would actually benefit, you know, the people who need the most.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Aaron Belkin, your response?

AARON BELKIN: Well, I would say that things are even worse than Mattilda suggested, because it’s not just a question of the focus on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” diverting attention. And I say this as someone who has been fighting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for years and who believes passionately that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” needed to end, and that’s been my professional struggle for all these years. But at the same time, it’s important to be honest and to note that not only did we divert attention away from more pressing problems, but our very rhetoric, as a gay and as a queer community, in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” struggle reinforced militarism. What does that mean? It means that every time we talked about the importance of promoting unit cohesion and the loyal gay and lesbian servicemember, we reinforced the notion of the military as a noble institution. And that has a militarizing impact.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book that was just published is called How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. So what are these progressive lessons, Aaron?

AARON BELKIN: Well, one of them is to be honest about our inclusion-seeking strategies and to understand the costs of those. And so I talk in the book about this question of militarization.

Another is that, as progressives, we’ve been advised to, particularly by George Lakoff, to worry about framing and slick packaging and marketing. And my lesson from the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal campaign is that, as progressives, maybe in some important cases, our issue is not so much that we don’t know how to frame, but that we sometimes run away from our own ideas. And I can elaborate on that, but that is the main lesson that I learned.

AMY GOODMAN: Elaborate on it.

AARON BELKIN: Well, think for a moment about national security policy and the ways in which excessive military strength is dangerous and excessive military strength undermines our economy—sorry, our security. Well, and our economy, as well. So, is the best strategy, as a progressive, to try to pretend that we believe in military strength, or is the best strategy to use research and data to actually show that excessive military strength undermines our security, and to say that, again and again and again, to give our leaders some cover to say that, too? In the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” debate, we didn’t go about trying to invent some new frame or some slick packaging. We just looked at the conservatives’ — frankly, at the conservatives’ lies, the idea that gay troops hurt the military, and we used research and data again and again and again to show that’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: You have spent a long time looking at “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” How was it repealed exactly? How would you say the organizing took place?

AARON BELKIN: Well, in the book, I mention that there were at least five strategies that gay rights groups were pursuing. I don’t think any single strategy was decisive, but it was a combination of incredible protest and direct action by people like Dan Choi, who you had earlier in your segment, grassroots organizing out in moderate swing states, litigation, insider lobbying here in Washington, and then a public education component that we had to convince the American people and the military that repeal would not harm the armed forces. That’s that kind of double-edged argument that reinforced militarism but also led to the dismantling of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

AMY GOODMAN: And what ultimately, Aaron Belkin, do you think was the tipping point when it changed? And what has President Clinton, under whose reign this all went down, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was instituted, what has he had to say about this?

AARON BELKIN: I haven’t heard President Clinton say anything recently, though I’m sure that, based on his earlier remarks, he’s happy today. He was no fan of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” His hand was really forced. And I would bet—I mean, he, of course, has to speak for himself, but I would bet that he’s very proud of President Obama today.

As for the tipping point, it’s hard to point to any one moment, but there were a few critical steps along the way. Breaking the news that Arabic linguists were fired for being gay, I think helped illustrate to the public the stakes of discrimination. When former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili, published an op-ed in the New York Times saying that as the top officer in the military, he was wrong about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” that was profound. And then when Admiral Mike Mullen said last year that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” undermines our values, I think that was the last—the last nail in the coffin.

AMY GOODMAN: If Republicans were to win in 2012 the presidency, could “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” be reinstituted?

AARON BELKIN: Well, I mean, many people have had this conversation. I think that would be the least of our problems. But in theory, they could, although in practice, it would be very difficult, even for the most extreme Republican like Rick Perry, to do so. The issue is political because about three-quarters of the country, including a majority of Republicans, favor repeal. And it’s also operational, because how are you going to force people to go back in the closet? You know, George Bush tried to get rid of a Clinton-era executive order mandating nondiscrimination in the civilian sector of the government, and he couldn’t get away with it, because it would have looked too mean-spirited. So the Republicans can try, and in theory they could succeed, but I think we’re safe.

AMY GOODMAN: Aaron Belkin, I want to thank you very much for being with us, associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, director of the Palm Center, author of the new book How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

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