Former Democratic National Committee chair and presidential candidate Howard Dean made a surprise appearance Sunday at a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rally as a group of six new protesters were arrested after they chained themselves to the White House gates.
The protest, attended by about 300 opponents of the ban on open service, was intended to move President Obama to call on Congress to include repeal as part of upcoming defense budget legislation. The protest was a collaborative effort of GetEQUAL and Queer Rising.
Those attending the rally carried signs reading, “Study: Navy has some bigots – Duh!” and “Mr. Obama, What’s the hold up?”
At one point, protests shouted in a chant, “What do we want? Full equality! When do we want it? Now!” They also shouted, “Shame on Obama! Shame on your silence!”
Speaking before attendees, Dean said an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is necessary because it robs the U.S. military of personnel with crucial skills, such as Arabic language translation.
“We can’t afford to lose any talented people, and to kick talented people out of the military because they happen to be gay or lesbian makes no sense at all,” Dean said.
Dean commended Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-Mich.) for what he called “being a hero” in taking the initiative to work toward repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The former DNC chair said Levin “has the votes to tack on to the defense authorization bill the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Dean meant the votes are present in the Senate Armed Services Committee for passage or whether Levin was still working toward that goal. Levin’s office didn’t respond to a request to comment.
“That is the right thing to do for America, and I want to thank Sen. Levin for his courage and his willingness to stand up and get the right thing done,” Dean said.
The six protesters who chained themselves to the White House gates were Anne Tischer, Mark Reed, Iana DiBona, Alan Bounville, Nora Camp and Natasha Dillon.
As they chained themselves, protesters led attendees in chant of “I am somebody, and I deserve full equality.”
Led by Lt. Dan Choi, who had previously been arrested twice for chaining himself to the White House fence, those in attendance shouted out the Pledge of Allegiance to those chained to the fence. After reciting the last line of “With liberty and justice for all,” attendees repeated the refrain “For all! For all!”
After they were arrested, Paul Yandura, an organizer with GetEQUAL, said the protesters were charged with the misdemeanor of failure to obey a lawful order. He said they each paid a fine of $100 and their cases are now closed.
Prior to the act of civil disobedience, Choi spoke to the audience in fiery language, serving as a distraction as protesters chained themselves.
“I still here, my feet firmly planted,” Choi said. “I’m still speaking out! I am still telling the truth. I am still proud of who I am, I am still serving as a U.S. army officer, and I serving my country and I am still gay!”
Participants at the rally said they took part to show solidarity with those who are frustrated with Obama and are seeking an end to the ban on open service.
Erika Knepp, 31 and a queer Annapolis, Md., resident, said it’s “absolutely ridiculous” Obama hasn’t called for repeal this year.
“He was voted on making promises, and that’s all it’s come to,” she said. “We had the National Equality March to make him promise to keep his promises, and there’s been nothing so far, and it makes me very angry.”
Also expressing anger at the rally over Obama’s lack of support for overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a gay Army ROTC student at Georgetown University, who spoke to the Blade on the condition of anonymity to avoid being outed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
He said he felt Obama has “betrayed” him by not fulfilling his campaign promise to repeal the ban on open service.
“When he said that, I was really relieved, knowing that I might be able to come out without having to lie all the time to my peers,” he said. “But after learning that the White House is not following through on that, it’s actually disappointing.”
Speakers from a number of organizations in support of repeal spoke the before attendees. Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, was among those expressing his dissatisfaction with Obama’s lack of urgency in moving toward “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“If you don’t put repeal language in the defense authorization bill, you have not done everything you can do,” Nicholson called out to Obama. “There’s more you still can do, and we expect you to do it, and we expect you to do it before the markup on May 24.”
Nicholson said he had a brief conversation on Saturday with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on the president’s position on repeal. Nicholson later told the Blade the exchange took place at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
According to Nicholson, Emanuel said supporters still “had a legitimate shot” at repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and had a 30 to 40 percent chance of success.
“Well. you know why it’s not 60 to 80 percent?” Nicholson said. “Because they don’t support us right now. There’s more they can do. They know it. They’re ducking the question. They need to step up to the plate.”
Jarrod Chlapowski, a former linguist for the U.S. Army and military consultant for the Human Rights Campaign, also spoke before attendees about the need to push for an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.
His affiliation with HRC wasn’t mentioned in his introduction, and he made no remarks saying he worked for the organization during his remarks.
Chlapowki said Obama’s lack of support for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means he’s “failed the people here, those serving” the country in the U.S. military as well as his “own ideal of change.”
Marty Rouse, HRC’s national field director, was among the attendees at the protest, although he didn’t speak publicly.
An HRC spokesperson, Michael Cole, said both Rouse and Chlapowski were representing the organization officially during their participation at the protest.