Supporters of open service in the U.S. military rallied on Capitol Hill Friday to urge the Senate to stay in session for as long as needed until lawmakers repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Braving the December cold, around 100 participants gathered near the U.S. Capitol at the Upper Senate Park for the event, which was organized by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Those in attendance shouted the refrain “Don’t Go Home!” as they demanded that lawmakers continue work on Capitol Hill until “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed.
The rally comes in the wake of a devastating defeat that supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal suffered on Thursday when the Senate failed to move ahead with major defense legislation containing repeal language by a vote of 57-40, three votes short of the 60-vote threshold necessary to end a filibuster.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, told the crowd the vote represented a setback, but said supporters of repeal have “reported back for duty.”
“In this lame duck, we speak everyday for all LGBT service members as they fight for our freedom,” Sarvis said. “In this Congress, we raise our voices as one and say, ‘Senators, kill this law, kill this law before you go home!'”
A number of veterans and current service members — gay and straight — addressed the rally and called for an end to the military’s gay ban.
Mike Almy, a gay former Air Force communications officer who was discharged in 2008 under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” also called on the Senate to stay in session until work is done on lifting the military’s gay ban.
“The Senate wants … to go home to their families and not do their duties and sit by warm fireplaces comfortably in their homes for Christmas while the work remains unfinished,” Almy said. “If I can serve overseas in harm’s way for four Christmases defending our nation, the Senate can certainly do the same.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set Dec. 17 as the target date for adjournment for the Senate, although some lawmakers, including Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), have said they’re willing to stay in session through the week before Christmas to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Ret. Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich, who’s straight served in the Army for 35 years, said repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is needed because the ban compromises the integrity of the U.S. military.
“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ acknowledges that gays and lesbians serve in our military, but pretends they’re not there,” he said. “It destroys the values of that institution and on which it is based.”
Should the Senate not repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Laich predicted what he called a “Spartacus moment” in which the estimated 66,000 gay and lesbian people serving in the military would declare their sexual orientations under the current law.
“How much does it cost to process the discharge of 66,000 service members?” Laich said. “How much does it cost to recruit and train their replacements? How long will it take to recruit and train those replacements? And how vulnerable will America be during this self-imposed national security crisis?”
Speakers at the rally had particularly strong words for senators who were among the “no” votes on Thursday preventing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation from coming to the Senate floor.
Almy, an Ohio native whose family still lives in the state, said he was particularly disappointed in Sen. George Voinovich’s (R-Ohio) decision to vote against the legislation. The senator was considered a swing vote on moving forward with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“Yesterday, you shamed me with your vote as well as the rest of the Ohio veterans,” Almy said. “This is going to be your legacy. You are on the wrong side of history here Sen. Voinovich. I call on you here specifically to stay here in Washington and not leave.”
Two speakers who hailed from West Virginia also had harsh words for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the only Democrat who voted against the motion to proceed Thursday on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation.
Sgt. Jared Towner, a straight member of the West Virginia Army National Guard, said the “very, very established progressive youth element” in his state is disappointed in Manchin for his vote and could decline to back him when he’s next up for election in two years.
“We are the people that are going to be there — or we are the people that are not going to be there — in 2012,” Towner said. “You have to be there for us.”
Former Army Sgt. Pepe Johnson, a field artilleryman and Clarksburg, W.Va., native who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2003, said he was “embarassed” because Manchin “decided to be a lone ranger” and vote against repeal.
“He said he’d only been in office for three weeks, so he didn’t have a chance to hear from the people of West Virginia,” Johnson said. “Well, Joe Manchin, if you can’t hear now, you better get a hearing aide!”
Many participants echoed the general tenor of the rally that Congress should stay in session for the time that’s needed to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before going home.
Toby Quaranta, 25 and a gay D.C. resident, said he participated in the rally because he wants “people everywhere to know” that supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal don’t want lawmakers to adjourn until the law is off the books.
“I think the Senate has a responsibility to the service members and to the people who just re-elected a lot of them to make sure that they get their business done before they leave town,” Quaranta said.
Bridget Geraghty, 25 and a lesbian D.C. resident, expressed frustration that the Senate was unable to act on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal when the vote came before the chamber on Thursday.
“I was seriously disappointed, but I guess not really surprised,” she said. “It’s never a surprise when Republicans don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and I think it was ridiculous that they are not letting this happen.”
One group of rally participants held up a banner during reading “In memory of Seaman August Provost, 1979-2009: All LGBT employees of the Department of Defense deserve EQUAL RIGHTS!”
Provost, a gay Navy seaman stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., was found dead on base last year and was possibly murdered because of his sexual orientation. He reportedly had complained to family members that was being harassed before he was killed.
Also among the rally participants was Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. Following the rally, she told the Blade she was “extremely disappointed” in the Senate vote on Thursday, but expected repeal advocates to continue toward their goal.
“I’m pleased that there are senators who are going to continue to push in this lame duck, and all of us at this rally and elsewhere around the country are going to push with them,” she said.
Many repeal advocates are pinning their hopes on new stand-alone legislation that Lieberman introduced in the Senate following the defeat on Thursday of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill. The new stand-alone measure is identical to the repeal provision in the defense legislation.
Following the rally, Sarvis expressed optimism about the chances of passing the stand-alone repeal legislation in the lame duck and said repeal advocates are working to come up with 60 votes to move forward with the legislation in the Senate.
“The defense authorization bill, as a vehicle, became stale for a number of reasons,” he said. “Some senators talked about process or the procedure. I think our chances may well improve on a clean bill — clean in the sense of new introduction.”
Sarvis said attaching repeal language to the continuing resolution that Congress will soon vote on to extend funding for the U.S. government is another option on the table.
Still, Sarvis said using this measure as a vehicle for repeal would be “one of the last opportunities” for legislatively ending the military’s gay ban this year.
“Normally, the CR sometimes moves sometimes literally in the final hours,” Sarvis said. “So that is clearly an option that is out there. That’s why SLDN has put it on the table.”