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Obama Administration Takes Steps to End “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

During his campaign, President Barack Obama promised his lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) supporters that he would work to repeal the law banning gay men and lesbians from openly serving in the Armed Services, commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), which was instituted by Congress in 1993. While recognizing that a full repeal of DADT requires an act of Congress, LGBTQ activists were disappointed that President Obama did not address DADT during his first year in office, as he had the ability to issue an executive order that would have required the military to cease discharging gay and lesbian service members. On January 27, 2010, however, he took a step toward allaying their concerns—deeming the issue important enough to include in his first State of the Union address and stating his intention to work with Congress and the military toward repeal because it is “the right thing to do.”[i]
Less than a week after the State of the Union, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding repealing DADT. Secretary Gates, while acknowledging that any change in the law must be made by Congress, informed the Committee that he has convened a working group to study how best to prepare the military in the event of a repeal. The working group will assess the opinions of current service members; “undertake a thorough examination of all the changes to the department’s regulations and policies that may have to be made,” including those regarding benefits, housing, and fraternization; and ascertain any changes to military effectiveness that could result from a repeal.[ii] The study could take up to a year. In the meantime, however, he also will receive recommendations on any latitude the Department of Defense (DOD) may have in enforcing existing law.[iii] 
While Secretary Gates’s manner was objective and calm, Admiral Mullen’s testimony that followed excited the LGBTQ activists present at the hearing due to his zealous advocacy for repealing DADT. Though he emphasized that he was speaking only for himself, he stated that:
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.[iv]
His thoughtful testimony, in which he also assured the Committee that he and the Joint Chiefs would consider the matter and advise the President accordingly, constitutes the first instance of the current top-ranking military officer in the country showing support for repealing the existing law. 
The reactions of the Committee members varied widely, particularly among members of the different political parties. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Chairman of the Committee and a long-standing opponent of DADT, suggested two immediate legislative remedies: instituting a moratorium on discharging service members while the DOD is performing its study, and including the repeal in the FY11 Defense authorization bill. Several other Committee members also spoke in favor of repeal; however, three were vociferously against it—Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking member on the Committee, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). Senator Sessions’s implied that Admiral Mullen’s expression of his opinion on the matter would exert undue influence on all service members, while Senator Chambliss suggested that repealing DADT, inexplicably, would lead to an increase in “alcohol use, adultery, fraternization and body art.”[v] During his failed 2006 Presidential campaign, Senator McCain had said that “[t]he 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.”. Yet despite the fact that the nation’s top-ranking military officer had just done just that, Senator McCain was the strongest voice in opposing the repeal.[vi] At a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing held on February 23, 2010, several top Army and Air Force officials expressed concern about the effect repealing DADT would have on combat forces, that are engaged in two wars,  Still, they acknowledged the importance of the study currently underway at DOD.[vii] Though some in the Senate oppose repealing DADT, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2009 in the House of Representatives, which would repeal DADT, currently boasts 187 cosponsors.[viii] 
DADT is a flawed policy that resulted from an attempt by President Bill Clinton to change the  practice that existed when he took office. At the time, it was the Pentagon’s policy to discharge gay and lesbian service members and require applicants to declare their sexual preference. President Clinton intended to overturn this by issuing an Executive Order, much like President Harry S. Truman did when he issued Executive Order 9981, integrating the previously segregated Armed Forces.[ix] President Clinton encountered strong opposition from Congress, and eventually the parties reached the compromise we now know as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in which applicants would no longer be asked about their sexual orientation and gay men and lesbians would be allowed “to serve as long as they did not admit their orientation.”[x] In addition to the detrimental effect of codifying what once was just a single Department’s policy into law, DADT also placed the power to “establish qualifications for and conditions of service in the armed forces” in the hands of Congress.[xi]  
Much has changed in the country since DADT was enacted.  While only 44% of the population supported allowing gay men and lesbians to serve in the military in 1993, that number currently stands at 75%.[xii]  In addition, though those who oppose gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military argue that it would be a threat to unit cohesion, no studies have shown this to be true.   In fact, a recent study of 25 countries that currently allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly states that “[r]esearch has uniformly shown that transitions to policies of equal treatment without regard to sexual orientation have been highly successful and have had no negative impact on morale, recruitment, retention, readiness or overall combat effectiveness.”[xiii]  Moreover, American troops have fought alongside forces from countries that allow gay men and lesbians to serve in the military, with no effect on their performance. 
Americans also are aware of the tremendous costs of this discriminatory law, both monetarily and in terms of personnel. Over 35,000 gay and lesbian service members have been discharged under DADT since 1993 at a cost to taxpayers that has been estimated as high as $473 million, as research has indicated that the cost of “discharging and replacing each service member,” including recruitment and training costs, is up to “37,000 per service member.”[xiv] Over 1,000 of those discharged were deemed critical to operations because they had specialized skills, such as the ability to speak Arabic or Farsi.[xv] The highly publicized cases of Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, “a highly decorated F-15 fighter pilot and an 18-year veteran of the Air Force,” and Army Lieutenant Daniel Choi, “whose training as an Arab linguist was vital to the Army’s capability to perform effectively in Iraq,” have shown Americans how detrimental DADT can be to our forces fighting overseas.[xvi] While Lieutenant Choi has been allowed to return to training with his unit, Lieutenant Colonel Ferenbach’s discharge is still pending. 
“We strongly applaud Secretary Gates supporting the President’s view that DADT needs to go. It’s a matter of when and how, he said, not if. We also strongly applaud Chairman Mullen who unambiguously personally supported gays and lesbians serving openly. The top military brass of the United States just laid out a roadmap for full repeal,” stated Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “Having a law on the books that fires 300+ talented linguists and medics, at a time of two wars when all manpower is needed, is un-American, and practically speaking, makes no sense, not to mention the cost to the taxpayer of kicking out qualified men and women.”[xvii]
DADT must be repealed with all possible haste because it is discriminatory and detrimental to our Armed Forces. Even strong past supporters of DADT, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, and former Vice President Dick Cheney, believe that repeal is necessary. President Obama must work with Congress to allow all Americans who are brave and dedicated enough to desire to serve the country the opportunity to do so, regardless of their sexual preferences. 

[i] President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 27 January 2010, accessed 17 February 2010, <>.

[ii] Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “Statement on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” U.S. Department of Defense Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), 2 February 2010, accessed 17 February 2010, <>.

iii] Ibid. 

[iv] Admiral Mike Mullen, “Testimony Regarding DoD ‘Dont Ask, Dont Tell’ Policy,” JCS Speech, 2 February 2010, accessed 17 February 2010, <>.

[v] Senator Saxby Chambliss, “Testimony Regarding DoD ‘Dont Ask, Dont Tell’ Policy,” JCS Speech, 2 February 2010, accessed 17 February 2010, <>.

[vi] “Under campaign pressure, McCain makes U turns,” Washington Post, 12 February 2010, accessed 17 February 2010, <>.

[vii]Ed O’Keefe, “Air Force, Army leaders seek more data on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Washington Post, 24 February 2010, accessed 24 February 2010, <>. 

[viii] H.R. 1283, “Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2009,” 111th Cong., accessed 24 February 2010, <|/bss/111search.html|>.

[ix] Lawrence J. Korb, Sean E. Duggan, and Laura Conley, Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2009), accessed 17 February 2010, <>, 6.

[x] Om Prakash, “The Efficacy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’’’ Joint Force Quarterly 55 (4th quarter 2009), accessed 17 February 2010, <>, 89. 

[xi] Ibid. 

xii] Korb, Duggan, and Conley, 5. 

[xiii] Dr. Nathaniel Frank et al., Gays in Foreign Militaries 2010: A Primer, (Santa Barbara, CA: Palm Center, 2010), accessed 24 February 2010, <>.

[xiv] Korb, Duggan, and Conley, 12. 

[xv] Ibid., 18

[xvi] Ibid., 3. 

[xvii] Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, “SLDN Applauds Historic Hearing: For First Time, U.S. Military Brass Support Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Press Release dated 2 February 2010, accessed 24 February 2010, <>.