The passage of legislation to end the 17-year-old ban on service by open gays in the U.S. military after a year-long fight makes the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” saga the story of the year for 2010.
Throughout the course of the year, supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal endured a rollercoaster ride during which many observers predicted efforts to lift the military’s gay ban would end in failure.
In January, President Obama set up the path for repeal in his State of the Union address.
“This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are,” Obama said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” got a significant boost in February during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen announced that he personally supports the service of openly gay people in the U.S. military.
“It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do,” Mullen said. “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”
Mullen’s support for ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is seen by many as the lynchpin that ultimately led to repeal of the law because he is an authoritative voice in the military and was seen as outside the influence of LGBT advocates.
During the same hearing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled plans to establish a Pentagon working group study of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that would determine the best way to implement repeal of the law should Congress should take action. Gates appointed Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel, and Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe, as co-chairs of the working group, and directed them to produce a study by Dec. 1.
At the same hearing, U.S. senators opposed to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal expressed consternation over plans to move forward and Mullen’s declared support for allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was “deeply disappointed” by Gates’ statement and the defense secretary’s plans to move forward with a study to determine how to implement repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as opposed to whether it should be repealed.
As the study on implementing an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was underway, those seeking to end the law made plans to pass a repeal of the law as part of major defense budget legislation pending before Congress as part of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill. In 1993, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was enacted into law as part of the defense authorization bill and LGBT advocates believed attaching a measure as part of defense spending legislation would bolster chances for success of repeal.
But the path to passage of repeal encountered a significant roadblock in April when Gates wrote a letter to Congress saying he’s “strongly opposed” to any legislative change to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the Pentagon study is complete.
Many thought Gates had doomed any chances for legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But repeal advocates came forth with a compromise measure that would institute an end to the law only after the Pentagon report was finished and the president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the U.S. military is ready.
The White House and Pentagon issued statements saying pursuing legislation after the Pentagon study is complete would be the ideal way to address repeal, but that they could support the proposed compromise legislation.
In May, the House attached the repeal measure as part of the defense authorization bill as an amendment by a vote of 234-194 before approving the legislation as a whole. On the same day, the Senate Armed Services Committee did the same to its version of the bill before reporting it out to the Senate floor.
On the House floor, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq war veteran and the sponsor of repeal legislation, urged his colleagues to approve an end to the military’s gay ban.
Following the votes, the prospects for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal seemed bright. But the efforts to move forward with the legislation were stymied as the Senate didn’t take up the measure for months. In July, McCain objected to a motion to proceed to the defense authorization bill upon lawmakers’ return from August recess.
In September, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) file cloture to proceed on the defense authorization bill regardless of the objections from any other senator.
At first, many LGBT advocates were confident that 60 votes were present in the U.S. Senate to proceed to defense legislation over McCain’s objection. But this support began to crumble away as many U.S. senators said they disapproved of the limited number of amendments that would be allowed.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted for the repeal amendment in committee, was among those expressing discontent over the procedural conditions for the defense authorization.
The motion to proceed on the defense authorization bill failed 56-43, four votes short of the 60 votes necessary to proceed with the legislation. Reid pledged to bring up the legislation again, but the bill’s fate was uncertain.
When Republicans took control of the House in the November elections, it became clear that Congress needed to act before the end of the year.
With the legislative route to ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in limbo, another route to end the military’s gay ban opened up in September when a California federal court ruled that the law was unconstitutional in the case of Log Cabin Republicans v. United States.
In October, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips affirmed her earlier ruling by issuing an injunction enjoining the U.S. government from the enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The U.S. Justice Department appealed the decision to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and asked for a stay in the injunction, arguing that the Pentagon needs time to implement a repeal of the law.
On Oct. 21, the Ninth Circuit granted the stay in the injunction, ending the eight-day period in which gays could serve openly in the U.S. military.
But the court action put increased pressure on Congress to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the year was out. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs maintained Congress should repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislatively before the courts strike down the statute to provide the Pentagon more wiggle-room with implementation.
Efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” received another significant boost on Nov. 30 when the Pentagon finally released its study and found that repeal could be implemented with low risk to the armed forces over the long term.
The 256-page report included the results of survey sent out to 400,000 service members regarding openly gay people in the U.S. military. Of the more than 115,000 who responded, 70 percent said they believed repeal would have a positive, mixed or no effect on a unit’s ability to get the job done.
Hopes were high that with the Pentagon report, the Senate would be able to move forward with the defense authorization and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. But those hopes were dashed on Dec. 9 when a motion to proceed on the defense authorization bill failed 57-40.
Immediately following the vote, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Collins called a news conference and announced they would introduce stand-alone “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation — a move seen by many as a “Hail Mary” pass to make repeal happen before the end of the year.
With limited time remaining in the lame duck session, the U.S. House on Dec. 15 approved “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” yet again as a standalone measure by a vote 250-175. The move enabled the House to send the legislation to the Senate as “privileged” bill, shaving off the first 30 hours of debate that would have otherwise been needed in the Senate.
After the Senate approved the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, repeal advocates became optimistic that 60 votes were present to support the legislation as Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) signaled they would support repeal.
On Dec. 18, repeal advocates finally cleared the last major hurdle for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when the Senate invoked cloture on the legislation by a vote of 63-33. On the same day, the Senate agreed to final passage of the bill by a vote of 65-31.
LGBT advocates heralded the Senate vote — the first time Congress has approved a pro-gay bill as a standalone measure — as an unprecedented accomplishment for LGBT Americans.
President Obama brought to a close on Dec. 22 the legislative journey to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when he signed the repeal legislation into law.