A gay veterans group is planning a series of events next week to highlight the need to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the Senate could take action on the issue this month.
Servicemembers United is organizing a lobby day on Sept. 16 for gay veterans and other supporters of repeal to ask members of Congress to support passage of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill and pending language that would lead to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Additionally, the organization is planning on the same day an event for the same-sex partners of U.S. service members. Servicemembers United will also host a gala Sept. 17 at its office to raise money for the organization.
The events come as many repeal supporters are pushing for and expecting the Senate to take up the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this month after lawmakers return from August recess.
Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said taking up repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the first priority for HRC when lawmakers return next week.
“We are communicating with our allies on the Hill to let them know that we’re looking for them to finish the job,” Cole said. “We feel confident that the votes are there and that it’s time that we rid our laws of this terrible policy.”
Cole said the Senate reportedly is looking at the week of Sept. 20 to take up the defense authorization bill and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” language in the legislation.
The upcoming lobby day and other events are intended to build pressure on Congress in the remaining days before the vote to move forward with repeal.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the idea for the upcoming lobby day came after the organization and HRC jointly organized a similar lobby day on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in May.
“It’s something that has value outside of just the lobbying,” Nicholson said. “It’s an opportunity for vets from all over the country, supporters to get together and connect to socialize, to meet, to work together, collaborate.”
Nicholson said he’s expecting around between 50 and 100 people to attend the upcoming lobby day and estimated around 75 percent of attendees would be former U.S. service members.
But Nicholson said the lobby day next week would be different from the lobby day in the spring in many respects. One major difference will be that rather than simply pushing lawmakers to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” participants in the upcoming lobby day would ask members of Congress to support certain concrete actions.
“We’re focused on a different objective right now with this lobby day, which is the quality of the visits and the nuances of where the issue is right now,” Nicholson said. “We’re in a very different place right now than we were in early May and there’s some very specific procedural votes that are going to happen.”
Nicholson said the five actions that participants will ask lawmakers to take will be to:
• Oppose a motion to strike the repeal language from the defense authorization bill;
• Oppose any replacement or substitute amendment with respect to the repeal language;
• Oppose any other attempt to modify or remove the repeal language in the defense authorization bill;
• Oppose any filibuster attempt of the defense authorization bill as a whole;
• and support final passage of the defense authorization bill.
Nicholson said this approach to repeal is necessary because many members of Congress hold nuanced positions on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“People like Sen. Jim Webb can say, ‘I do support repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, just not this year,’ or ‘I do support it; I’m just going to support it within an expanded certification,’” Nicholson said. “So, we want to make sure that people who are doing our work have the detailed knowledge to be able to push back on these attempts to get around to actually voting for repeal this year.”
Additionally, the upcoming lobby day will differ from the previous lobby day because different members of the Senate are being targeted.
Previously, the repeal supporters had been working to influence the Senate Armed Services Committee to adopt repeal language as part of the defense authorization bill. Now that the committee has taken action to include the language in the legislation, the focus is on the Senate as a whole.
Nicholson said the targeted senators of the upcoming lobby day are Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.).
One senator that Nicholson said will get “special attention” is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) because he’s the sole person who can ensure the defense authorization bill sees a vote this month.
Even though the Senate is the priority for repeal supporters because a vote in that chamber is imminent, Nicholson said the lobby day will also involve visits to members of the U.S. House, which has already approved the defense authorization bill with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language.
“I’m a big believer in follow up and gratitude and appreciation,” Nicholson said. “And so, we’re also doing, where possible, we’re doing some visits with House staff to follow up and thank them for their support, especially for some of the members for whom it was hard to take this vote.”
Servicemembers United is the sole organizer of the upcoming lobby day and is not working with HRC to draw citizen lobbyists from across the country.
“We’ve grown to the point now where we can do something like this by ourselves, and so we decided to convene another lobby day,” Nicholson said.
Still, Nicholson said while previously Servicemembers United was able to rely on HRC to pay to bring people into D.C. from across the country, interested participants will now have to pay their own travel expenses
“They paid for a lot of tickets for people to come into town, and we don’t have that kind of money to throw down on this, so we’re obviously relying on people who are motivated and have the capacity to bring themselves here,” Nicholson said.
As the lobby day approaches, Nicholson said he’s feeling “fairly optimistic” that the Senate will pass a defense authorization bill that includes language for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, provided Reid brings the legislation to the floor for a vote.
“I think chances are pretty good that we’ll get that through to fruition if Sen. Reid brings it to the floor for a vote before they recess for election season,” Nicholson said. “If he doesn’t, I don’t know what to think. I sort of throw my hands up in the air at that point at that and say, ‘Let’s wait and see,’ because anything could happen.”
On the same day as the lobby day on Capitol Hill, Servicemembers United is also hosting a forum for the same-sex partners of U.S. service members.
Nicholson said the forum is the first ever for the same-sex partners of U.S. service members and is intended to facilitate conversations among those who are in same-sex relationships with those serving in the military.
“Partners are coming to meet each other to talk, to connect, to share their stories and experiences with each other to talk about they challenges, offer advice and get to know one another,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson said the event will be small in scale and estimated about 10 to 15 people will attend.
One component of this forum will be a meeting with the partners and the Pentagon working group that is developing a plan to implement repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Nicholson said he thinks this meeting will be similar to the meeting that repeal supporters arranged with the Pentagon working group for gay veterans in May.
“The Pentagon working group’s style with meeting with groups of people like this has been to let it be an open dialogue with some introductions and talking a little bit about their work and what they’ve been charged with,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson said he thinks that military partners would talk about their experience being the partner of a gay, lesbian or bisexual service members serving under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and advocate on their partners’ behalf.
Cynthia Smith, a Pentagon spokesperson, confirmed that members of the Pentagon working group are set to meet with the same-sex partners of U.S. service members. Still, she said she couldn’t yet identify which members of the working group would meet with the partners.
“We’re just going to discuss what impact the possible repeal would have on military readiness, unit cohesion, family readiness and recruiting and retention — the same thing we’re asking the spouses of heterosexual partners,” she said. “We understand their voice is very important and we want to hear from them as well.”
But could the same-sex partners of service members inadvertently out their partners under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the discussion with the working group?
Smith said the working group will establish guidelines prior to the meeting warning participants not to identify their partners.
“We’re going to establish ground rules that we don’t want them to out a partner,” she said. “Obviously, we’re going to establish those ground rules up front.”
Nicholson said he doesn’t think U.S. service members would be outed by same-sex partners because they “live under the cloud of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ just like their active duty partners.”
“They develop the same risk-aversion instincts as active duty gay and lesbian troops and are fully capable of avoiding the inadvertent outing of their partners,” Nicholson said. “This experience won’t be an unfamiliar one for them in that sense.”