Activists are ramping up efforts this year to push for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” while remembering that similar optimism in 1993 on lifting the ban on gays serving openly led to the law’s creation.
Last week, President Obama affirmed his commitment during the State of the Union address to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” noting that he’d work this year with Congress and military leaders to end the law. His announcement brought new life to the issue in the mainstream media and among activist groups.
But amid this activity, the shadow of what took place in 1993, when LGBT advocates had similar optimism about lifting the ban, is influencing the work that’s happening today.
When former President Bill Clinton took office 17 years ago, advocates expected him to fulfill his campaign pledge to end the ban preventing gays from serving in the military. Since there was no federal law on the issue at the time, the only step required to end the ban was administrative action.
But resistance from Congress — particularly from then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn — and opposition from military leaders such as then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell thwarted Clinton’s efforts to end the ban.
The result was the 1993 law that came to be known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which at the time was billed as a compromise because it would ostensibly allow gays to serve in the U.S. military provided they didn’t disclose their sexual orientation.
Many activists have said Clinton was unable to fulfill his promise to end the ban because the LGBT community didn’t provide him with sufficient political cover to accomplish his goal.
Clinton also holds this view. After gay activist Lane Hudson questioned him on the matter last year during the Netroots Nation conference, Clinton told an audience of bloggers that advocates in 1993 “couldn’t deliver” support in the Congress needed to administratively end the ban.
David Smith, vice president of programs for the Human Rights Campaign, in 1993 was communications director for the Campaign for Military Service, a group that worked to help guide Clinton’s efforts to repeal the ban. While acknowledging LGBT activists made some possible missteps at the time, Smith told DC Agenda that a number of obstacles contributed to the creation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” not just deficiencies from activists.
“You had a very exuberant, politically naïve community combined with a politically naïve new president, a Democratic-controlled Congress that wasn’t all that enthusiastic about lifting the ban, and you had a Republican minority in Congress that was dying to regain the majority and inflict political harm on the new president and the Democratic Congress,” Smith said.
Smith said the LGBT community might have fared better if the issue had come up later in Clinton’s term as opposed to soon after he took office.
“In retrospect, I think if the community would have waited a year or two to better understand military resistance and understand congressional resistance, and mapped out a plan, Congress wouldn’t have been so quick to impose a law, and there might have been a different path,” Smith said.
Nathaniel Frank, author of “Unfriendly Fire” and research fellow at the Palm Center, a think-tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was similarly reluctant to ascribe the failure of lifting the ban in 1993 solely to shortcomings from the LGBT community.
“Yes, the gay community could have done more if it was bigger, more organized, better funded,” Frank said. “Political leaders need the pressure of constituents to help them get done what they need to get done, but I think that President Clinton there was really evading responsibility.”
Learning from mistakes
Whatever responsibility LGBT supporters had in creating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” activists this year are learning from mistakes made at that time to support Obama in his goal of repealing the law.
Smith said one of the lessons learned from 1993 on repeal is to make tactical decisions after thoughtful planning. He noted that his organization has been “quietly pressing for action” for months on this issue in Congress and in the administration.
A more public campaign, Smith said, will launch soon and target states with lawmakers who would be key to overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Smith estimated the campaign would cost more than $2 million and would involve grassroots and grasstops efforts as well as earned and paid media.
“It’s very targeted, but again it’s still unclear exactly how this is going to unfold and it could go in any number of directions,” Smith said. “We need to be ready to deal with whatever direction it does go in to make sure the ultimate outcome is what we all expect.”
Smith declined to comment on which states HRC would target in its campaign or what the comment of earned and paid media, saying that such information needed to remain confidential for tactical reasons.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said his organization also is ramping up efforts amid the greater push to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“We always hoped it would happen sooner rather than later, but I think it’s definitely been a surprise that the president has decided to include this issue in the State of the Union and to move forward on this quickly,” Nicholson said. “So we’re obviously trying to rapidly expand our capacity, roll out a number of campaigns and initiatives that we wanted to get underway.”
Nicholson said Servicemembers United has been getting numerous media calls and has been identifying LGBT service members and veterans to respond to those requests. He also noted that his organization is trying to identify high-ranking retired military members who are straight and support allowing gays to serve openly.
Additionally, Nicholson said organizations opposed to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are having a larger number of collaborative meetings and working to “share information, share intelligence, share resources, work together more closely.”
But the lessons learned from 1993 are hanging over all efforts to repeal the law this year. Frank said advocates of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should keep in mind the arguments that opponents of gays in the military used then in the new push for overturning the law.
“The first thing that gay advocates should do is understand the history of the tactics the people used the last time — the fear tactics, the delay tactics, the dishonesty, the slippery slope arguments — making this much scarier and complicated than it really is,” Frank said.
Frank also cautioned against underestimating the vehemence with which opponents of gays in the military will defend the status quo.
“The religious right has been somewhat quiet on social issues in the last year and the media have been quiet on social issues,” Frank said. “They haven’t been as big, but make no mistake, they’ll come roaring back, so it’s important not to underestimate the vehemence of homophobia and the strength of the opposition to reform in military or religious circles.”
Still, Frank said advocates should be ready to differentiate between those who have “genuine anxiety” about what the change means for the U.S. military and those who are expressing concern simply to block repeal.
While it’s unclear what opponents of repeal are planning this year, Smith said HRC is anticipating the traditional faces — such as Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council — to “get in their TV makeup” to build opposition to repealing the law.
Opponents of gays in the military are starting to emerge with familiar arguments that were often used in 1993.
Following Obama’s State of the Union address, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), who’s quickly becoming the primary opponent of any “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the U.S. Senate, issued a statement in support of current policy.
McCain noted that “we have the best trained, best equipped, and most professional force in the history of our country,” suggesting that ending the ban on gays serving openly would be detrimental to unit cohesion and take away from the U.S. military’s standing in the world.
Jarrod Chlapowksi, a gay U.S. Army veteran who supports HRC in its Voices of Honor tour, said “there’s a ton of ways” for supporters of repeal to approach McCain’s argument.
“The unit cohesion argument has been disproven numerous times,” he said. “We have the example of Israel. I don’t think anyone would say Israel has a weak military by any means, and that tends to be a pretty strong example. But there really is nothing supporting McCain’s position that this would be detrimental to unit cohesion.”
Another frequently used argument against allowing gays to serve in the military that could emerge again is concern about whether straight service members would be comfortable using shared shower facilities with gay troops.
But Chlapowksi said that concern can be allayed by noting that gay service members are already showering with straight troops and the change in policy hasn’t been shown to be disruptive in other countries.
“We already share showers, we already share foxholes, we already share barracks,” he said. “The only change is that you know who’s gay and who’s not. The reality is that’s not going to cause someone to go crazy and to make an exodus of troops.”
Even with the experience of 1993 looming over activists, much has changed in 17 years. Recent polls consistently show that a majority of the public supports repeal, and have even found that a majority of conservatives favor allowing gays to serve openly.
Smith said opponents of gays of military could thus have the issue backfire on them if they handle it incorrectly.
“The country is facing economic hardship, two wars — and if Republicans spend a lot of time trying to create political animosity around this issue, it could backfire on them big time,” Smith said. “But our opposition is not to be underestimated.”