A precursor of more LGBT rights advances to come? Or the last victory that the LGBT community will see for some time as Republicans retake the House in January?
Either way, LGBT rights advocates agree the legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a major victory that will send to the dustbin of history a 17-year-old statute barring open gay and lesbian Americans from the armed forces.
On Tuesday, a number of lawmakers said repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” represents a seismic change in how the United States has come to view LGBT people over the course of the past 17 years. The remarks were made during the enrollment ceremony in which U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signed the legislation to send it to President Obama’s desk. Obama signed the bill into law on Wednesday.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recalled that in 1993, as a freshman member of the U.S. Senate, she offered an amendment to major defense budget legislation containing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to strip the bill of the then-proposed gay ban before it was implemented.
“I offered an amendment to take it out 17 years ago, and I got 33 votes,” Boxer said. “Here’s the amazing irony — wonderful irony — is that on the procedural vote … in the Senate this time, only 33 people said, “Let’s keep it in,” and the rest said, ‘Get rid of it.’”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the longest-serving openly gay lawmaker in Congress, said the repeal of the military’s gay ban checks off an important outstanding goal that LGBT advocates had been seeking for some time.
Frank recalled that in 2006, then-Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana urged people in his district not to vote for his Democratic opponent Brad Ellsworth because his election would lead to the advancement of what Hostettler called the “radical homosexual agenda.”
“So let me own up to that agenda: it’s to be protected against violent crimes driven by bigotry, it’s to be able to get married, it’s to be able to get a job and it’s to be able to fight for our country,” Frank said. “Let me put them on notice! Two down, two to go!”
A number of LGBT advocates are hoping that the win with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will generate momentum for other victories such as relationship recognition for same-sex couples and passage of an employment non-discrimination law.
Winnie Stachelberg, vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, said the conversations about gays in the military will lead to further discussions about other LGBT rights.
“The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is not just going to be about the military,” Stachelberg said. “It enables conversation about workplace discrimination that we haven’t been able to have. It will have implications for state legislative battles and other issues.”
A Senate Democratic aide, who spoke to the Washington Blade on condition of anonymity, said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal will have a huge “psychological” impact on the Senate in terms of passing pro-LGBT legislation in the future because opponents of ending the gay ban — like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — failed in their efforts to stop repeal despite their best efforts.
“John McCain was absolutely neutered on this,” the aide said. “You saw how angry and vociferous he was on this, and he saw the foundation crack away under him. Republicans are no longer going to be as beholden to the arguments of yesterday that get put forward by people like McCain or [Sen. James] Inhofe.”
Patrick Egan, a gay political science professor at New York University, said repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” demonstrates the “maturing” of the LGBT community as a core constituency of the Democratic Party.
“This was no ‘flight by night’ effort by Obama,” Egan said. “It was a carefully considered, determined and well-planned, orchestrated effort by a Democratic administration to follow through on a campaign promise.”
Still, with a smaller Democratic majority in the Senate and Republican control of the House next year, most Capitol Hill observers see LGBT advances in the 112th Congress – such as passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or relationship recognition laws — as difficult if not outright impossible.
The Democratic aide said the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” helps build momentum in the Senate for LGBT issues, but the Republican-controlled House will likely be “a big stumbling block.”
“In the next Congress, we’ll probably see a reversed situation from what we saw in this Congress,” the aide said. “In this Congress, the House was more amenable to the pro-gay rights legislation, and the Senate was less amenable.
With the Republican House next Congress, we’ll see that it’s the Senate that becomes more amenable to pro-gay legislation.”
Egan also expressed pessimism about the passage of pro-LGBT bills in the next Congress because of the ascent of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as House speaker.
“When Republicans control even just one chamber of the legislature — as they’re going to do with the House in 2011 and 2012 — gay people just never win anything,” Egan said. “You really need Democratic control of legislatures — and typically the executive branch — in order for any significant movement on gay rights to occur.”
Still, Egan said affirmative votes on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal from senators like Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) could be a sign that LGBT bills will be seen as less partisan votes in the future.
“It indicates that legislators are becoming less afraid of voting in favor of gay rights — even on something as sensitive as military policy,” Egan said.
Stachelberg acknowledged that moving pro-gay legislation in the next Congress will be a “daunting task,” but said repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will at least enable conversations to take place on issues such as job discrimination.
“I don’t want to suggest things will be easy because of it,” Stachelberg said. “But it’s a useful debate to have had and as implementation moves through the Pentagon, we’ll continue to be talking about workplace discrimination in a helpful way.”
Stachelberg said those working on the passage of ENDA “ought to learn” from the strategy of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal campaign, which made those aggrieved by the status quo the public faces of the repeal effort.
She noted that gay service members outed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were visible in the campaign and said it was “terribly important” in the effort.
“From Mike Almy, to [Victor] Fehrenbach, to [Anthony] Woods, to Stacey [Vasquez] to all the members of the military who suffered this discrimination coming forward telling their stories — it’s essential that our community tell the story of LGBT workplace discrimination in an equally powerful way,” she said.
Discussion has already emerged about whether the legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would have an impact on the issue of same-sex marriage or lead to greater support for gay nuptials among the public.
Stachelberg said open service in the U.S. military and same-sex marriage are “completely different issues,” but maintained discussion of the military’s gay ban could facilitate greater visibility for marriage.
“We should acknowledge that the path to LGBT equality, first of all, is not linear,” she said. “This ‘Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell’ debate helps because it provides a really great, clear discussion point about what just happened, and I think it will open up about marriage equality.”
Egan said repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has already led social conservatives to make a distinction in their rhetoric between an end to the military’s gay ban and same-sex marriage.
“They need to concede that defeat and acknowledge that this is more or less a permanent change that reflects changing attitudes in society about gay people, but at the same time make the case that their argument about marriage is different,” Egan said.
Egan said he’s seen statements from social conservatives saying LGBT advocates through the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” weren’t seeking to change the institution of the military, but are seeking to change the institution of marriage by advancing gay nuptials.
“It’s required a bit of a re-calibration of the arguments put forward by the anti-marriage advocates to portray themselves as not believing in discrimination, not believing in inequality, but instead trying to defend a cherished social institution,” he said.