Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Is The End Near?

by Greg Siedschlag

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), the Clinton administration policy designed as a compromise to Clinton’s campaign promise of letting openly gay people serve in the military, is now in its 17th year. Many have viewed the policy as a failure, contending that it has not made life for gays in the military any easier than it was under the outright ban that preceded the policy. A pro-gay solution to DADT during the Bush administration was, at best, unlikely. With the Obama administration and large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, however, gay rights advocates sense that now is the time to overturn DADT and institute a new policy that will let gays serve openly. But will it actually happen? And if so, when?

If it does happen, it won’t be in 2009. Health care is consuming Congress at the moment. Even climate change, perhaps the second most urgent item on the national agenda, is unlikely to be considered in the Senate until next year. But DADT is one of many issues that could get its turn in 2010. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said there’s a good chance that a repeal of DADT would be inserted into the Department of Defense reauthorization bill. There is also a standalone bill in the House that would repeal DADT. According to reporting from, the bill has about 195 supporters. It would need roughly 20 more votes to pass.

Frank also told that Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is talking to the administration about sponsoring a similar measure in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is also in favor of repeal. “I think that we shouldn’t turn down anybody that’s willing to fight for our country, certainly based on sexual orientation,” Reid told the New York Times in July. It’s unclear how much support repeal has in the rest of the Senate. One indicator is the hate crime bill that passed in October by a 68-29 margin. But it’s unlikely that a repeal of DADT would have as much support. It may not even have enough to clear the 60-vote hurdle needed to break a filibuster. Frank himself said that 60 votes in the Senate is “no slam dunk.”

While Congressional support of repeal is in doubt, it has the full support of the executive branch. This was one of Obama’s campaign promises, and his administration has consistently opposed DADT. The White House position was brought to center stage in October when Obama spoke to gay rights advocates at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner. “I will end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Obama told the audience. “This is my commitment to you.” While many gay rights advocates are impatient with the administration, the hesitancy to act probably has more to do with an extremely crowded agenda (the economy, health care, job creation, the environment, financial regulation, etc.) than ambivalence.

But according to a study by the Palm Center, a research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Obama does not need to wait for Congressional action. By signing an executive order, Obama could ban discharges due to sexual orientation. While Congress must pass legislation to end to the policy, an executive order could halt its implementation. Since Obama was sworn in, there have been 525 discharges due to DADT. Given the administration’s consistent nominal support for ending the policy, it is unclear why Obama hasn’t taken this action.

Nonetheless, this is an opportune moment for repeal. Democrats control the White House and Congress, and pro-repeal forces have a lot of momentum on their side. For instance, the military itself has been a big obstacle. But there are strong signs that the military now views a DADT repeal as inevitable. Earlier this year Air Force Colonel Om Prakash contributed an essay entitled “The Efficacy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to Joint Forces Quarterly, a military journal. In the essay Prakash equates resistance to gays in the military with disagreement of military desegregation during the Truman administration. He goes on to say that “After a careful examination, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly.” The essay won the Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition for 2009. According to the New York Times, Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Mike Mullen reviewed the essay before publication, and Prakash now works in Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s office. The rank-and-file also tend to agree with Prakash. According to a 2006 Zogby poll, 64 percent of military personnel who knew someone in their unit who was gay said it had no effect on morale, and 78 percent of all respondents said they would join the military regardless of whether gays could serve.

There are other indicators that, despite the Proposition 8 setback in California last year, gay rights issues are gaining momentum. On Nov. 10 the American Medical Association voted to oppose DADT. The day after the Human Rights Campaign dinner, the National Equality March in Washington attracted tens of thousands to the U.S. Capitol. Finally, there is the hate crimes legislation that passed just last month, which includes gay and transgender people under federal hate crimes protections.

Given the crowded agenda at the present moment, it’s unlikely we will see any legislative movement on DADT before 2010, nor is Obama likely to sign an executive order ending implementation of the policy. Even next year, its prospects for repeal are tenuous. It is unclear that the Congressional majorities needed to overturn it exist, and Democrats from conservative districts will be under election-year pressure to avoid votes that could alienate constituencies essential for reelection. Even if it isn’t repealed next year, it is difficult to imagine that it won’t be repealed eventually. Past trends in the U.S. show that marginalized groups gain more rights over time. At this moment, it appears that allowing gays to serve openly in the military is likely to be the next big milestone in their march to equality.

Email Greg Siedschlag at



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