U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is planning to hold a vote this year on repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” according to her office.
“It is the Speaker’s intention that a vote will be taken this year on [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] in the House,” Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, told the Washington Blade in a statement this week.
The announcement is welcome news for repeal advocates because Pelosi has yet to send legislation to the floor that lacked sufficient support for passage.
Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, praised Pelosi for planning the vote.
“As we’ve been saying for a long time now, the time to repeal the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law is this year, and it’s a positive sign to hear congressional leaders affirm that,” Cole said.
Still, he noted that further work is necessary to make repeal happen.
“We need pressure on the Congress, we need pressure on the White House, we need pressure across the board, and as we get into this critical period, signs like that are promising,” he said.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he learned last week in a meeting with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer that the House was planning the vote.
“I’m delighted that [Pelosi] reaffirmed to hold the vote this year,” he said.
Sarvis said the planned vote is helpful because it “underscores to the White House the seriousness of purpose” and the importance of moving key votes in the House and Senate during upcoming weeks.
“The hour for the president as well as for the leadership to become engaged is now,” he said. “The reality is — particularly in the Senate Armed Services Committee — we are still short of some critical votes. We don’t have the votes today. We’re on the brink of getting them, and we need help from leadership on the Hill and from the president himself.”
As plans for the House vote emerged, pressure continued to build on President Obama to make a greater effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year. Activists were planning a White House protest Sunday to draw more attention to the issue.
Heading the event are the grassroots groups Queer Rising and GetEqual. The latter organization was responsible for civil disobedience protests in recent months, including arrests on two occasions of LGBT former service members who chained themselves to the White House gates in protest of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Alan Bounville, a member of Queer Rising and East Coast organizer for GetEqual, said the focus of Sunday’s protest would be to press Obama to send to Congress language repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of his budget recommendations for the defense authorization bill.
“We want the president to transmit to the Senate Armed Services Committee the language that’s put into the [Department of Defense] budget to repeal this ridiculous law immediately,” he said. “We want that to happen right now; we want him to do that this moment.”
Activists are urging Obama to send such language to Congress soon because the defense committees are expected to hold markups next month for defense authorization legislation. The Senate Armed Services Committee, which advocates have been pushing to take up the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is scheduled to hold its markup on May 26.
“So [the protest is] really just part of the growing swell of grassroots pressure that’s being placed on the president to take leadership on this issue because we know this window is closing for this to happen this year,” Bounville said.
The protest is set to take place Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. at Lafayette Park. Bounville noted that the number of people who participate could be in the hundreds or more. Organizers are still working on the messaging for the protest, Bounville said, including what he called a “visual component” that “may or may not happen that would also provide a stark visual image at the actual rally.”
The list of speakers planning to take part in the protest is still being finalized, but Bounville said among those taking part would be U.S. Army Lt. Dan Choi, an Iraq war veteran who was among those who chained himself to the White House fence in protest of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“There’s a list of speakers that are taking the stage and just really sharing their stories, repeating this demand over and over and over,” Bounville said. “We’ll be doing a lot of chanting and just really connecting the people not just to this issue, but also to the fact we’re really fighting for full federal equality.”
Bounville was non-committal about whether civil disobedience would be a component of Sunday’s protest. He said he had “no idea” whether anyone would break the law at the event.
“I have no idea and usually those types of things would be kept under wraps anyway,” he said. “So that’s definitely something we wouldn’t know until we’re actually out there.”
But at least one lawmaker was skeptical about the impact of the Sunday protest. Gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), when asked about the effectiveness of the White House protest, replied, “You think President Obama is going to cave because people are demonstrating in front of the White House? No.”
“If presidents were going to change because people demonstrate, then what happens when people demonstrate in the opposite direction?” he said. “Do you count the number of demonstrators? I continue to be frustrated by people trying to take the easy way out — the way that gives them an emotional release — instead of calling senators and calling representatives.”
Frank said he was willing to bet most of those participating in the protest have not lobbied their lawmakers “in a significant way.”
“By which, I mean, call them and getting other people to call them,” he said.
In response, Bounville said Frank and others shouldn’t disparage acts of civil disobedience because people are putting themselves on the line for these efforts.
“That’s disgusting,” he said. “When they say things that really condemn non-violent direct action, they’re completely out of touch, not just with this movement, but with the social movement in general.”
Bounville said he didn’t think “letter writing and phone calling and $2,500 a plate dinners” have influenced lawmakers to move toward repeal, and what’s working “is the groundswell of grassroots support.”
“So if there were any civil disobedience at this rally, if it’s well executed, I think that would be a wonderful thing for the movement,” he said.
While skeptical about the impact of Sunday’s protest, Frank said the White House isn’t being “supportive the way they should be” in moving forward with repeal this year.
Still, Frank said the recent regulatory changes limiting third-party outings and raising the rank of officers conducting and initiating reviews “made a tremendous difference.”
“I give them a lot of credit for moving as they did, but I can’t give them full credit and I’m disappointed,” he said.
Bounville is also urging national LGBT organizations to take part in the Sunday protest and said a lack of participation would mean those groups aren’t serious about the urgency of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“If these organizations really feel a sense of urgency of these issues, they will support rallies like this that the community is planning,” he said. “It’s a rally that has competent speakers eloquently speaking on this issue, and if they’re not going to support that, then they’re really not supporting the movement, period.”
Bounville said SLDN and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force would be among the organizations “looking at what they can do right now to help promote this event,” but the situation with HRC is different.
“HRC has been to this point unresponsive, which is interesting because the other organizations have responded,” he said Monday. “Joe Solmonese and HRC have not responded, which is not surprising. He’s forcing HRC to become irrelevant very fast.”
Cole denied that HRC hadn’t responded to the organizers’ request to participate. He said HRC started talks Monday about getting Jarrod Chlapowksi, HRC’s military consultant, involved in the event.
“He is interested in doing so and HRC is interested in having him appear,” Cole said. “Right now, Jarrod is in direct communication with the event organizers to work out the details and find out more about the event, but we look forward to his participation.”
Sarvis said SLDN is supportive of the protest, but was waiting to hear more details. He said he had a meeting scheduled April 23 with Kip Williams, a co-chair of GetEqual, but the discussion didn’t take place because Williams left town before the scheduled time.
“We’re having conversations about what it’s going to look like and who’s participating and what’s the scope of the protest,” Sarvis said. “But, yes, it’s certainly something that we’re going to be supporting … and we’ll be helping to get out information on it and other means.”
Noting Obama called for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as part of his State of the Union address, Sarvis said the challenge before repeal advocates is ensuring the president is following through and engaged with Congress to eliminate the statute this year.
“Clearly, if he gets on the phone and asks for votes in the two committees, that’s going to make a difference,” Sarvis said. “He’s working the phones on financial services reform. He did that on health care. We need that same kind of engagement in repealing that statute.”
Sarvis said protests such as the one occurring Sunday are effective in influencing President Obama to move forward with repeal this year, but noted that there are different approaches to petitioning the president.
“We have clients who are sending letters to the president this week individually; we’re up on Capitol Hill face-to-face with members and their staffs,” Sarvis said. “There’s a place for others to do their thing, whether it’s at the White House or Lafayette Park.”
Recalling a similar protest before the White House that SLDN organized in June to mark the then-265 service members who were discharged during Obama’s term, Sarvis said his organization has taken part in grassroots activism before.
“Petitioning the president at the White House is not a new thing for SLDN,” Sarvis said. “That’s something that SLDN organized almost 11 months ago, so obviously I think it’s helpful.”
In addition to the White House protest, Bounville noted that activists were planning actions targeting members of Congress regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He said his organization sent fliers to senators with differing positions on the issue — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) — with the message, “You’re next!”
Accordingly, five activists held a sit-in protest Monday at McCain’s district office in Phoenix, Ariz., to protest the senator’s opposition to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The fallout of the protest wasn’t immediately clear and McCain’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“From a non-violent direct action standpoint, yeah, we have reached out to those targets,” Bounville said.
Still, Bounville said the No. 1 focal point for the upcoming protest is Obama because he’s failed to follow through on his promise to be a “fierce advocate” for the LGBT community.
“I’m going to continue to pressure him,” Bounville said. “I’m going to continue to exhaust myself because I’m not exhausted on this. He will continue to lose political capital at an accelerated rate, probably faster than he would have if we weren’t engaged at this end of the movement.”