Groups that worked to advance “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal last year aren’t resting on their laurels as they continue to see work ahead in ensuring that open service is implemented and gays in the military are treated fairly.
In the near term, the main priority for those organizations now that President Obama has signed legislation allowing for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal is to ensure that certification of open service happens swiftly.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said his organization will pursue open service as required by the law signed by the president.
“Dec. 22 was a great day, but the reality is, we don’t have repeal,” Sarvis said. “The reality is ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is still the law. So, our first priority is the first 90, the first 180 days is to get certification.”
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a think tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said his organization will be in “monitoring mode” for possibly the remainder of the year.
“The finishing line is here, but we haven’t crossed it yet, unless and until we get certification and good regulations,” Belkin said. “Our job at this point is to just make sure that the process continues and that if there’s any foot-dragging at the Pentagon, that we call attention to it.”
Belkin said he anticipates the Palm Center will produce another study about three or six months after certification is issued to determine if implementation was successful.
The measure Obama signed would only enact open service after the president, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the U.S. military is ready for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
Further, after certification takes place, a 60-day waiting period for congressional review must pass before gays can serve openly in the U.S. military without fear of discharge.
In the State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama committed to certifying “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal before the year is out. The president said he expects certification to happen in a “matter of months” in an interview last month with The Advocate.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he won’t issue certification for open service until new regulations are drafted and training has been instituted in the armed forces.
Beyond certification, groups working on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” foresee a number of outstanding tasks that will remain, including providing legal services and ensuring that benefits are offered to gay troops.
Sarvis said SLDN will continue to provide legal services to gay service members who are facing discharges or who have questions about coming out while in service.
“I think, as an organization, SLDN will still be here providing legal services, working with Congress on oversight and being a resource to the Pentagon to make open service a reality,” he said.
Sarvis said since the legislation was signed, SLDN has heard from more than 225 service members who’ve called with questions about continuing to serve safely or receiving benefits in the post-repeal military.
Further, Sarvis said ensuring gay service members receive the same benefits afforded to straight service members would be another aim for SLDN.
“The post-repeal focus, in large part, will be parity for LGBT service members — particularly parity with respect to benefits: health benefits, GI benefits across the board,” Sarvis said.
The Pentagon report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — published Nov. 30 — states that the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the U.S. military from affording many benefits to same-sex partners of service members, but other benefits, such as death benefits and hospital visitation access, would still be available.
Sarvis said a combination of DOMA and other regulations prohibit gay service members from receiving the same benefits as their straight counterparts, but there is some leeway.
“There are some instances where the [defense] secretary has some authority with respect to definitional changes for dependents … but for most benefits, particularly involving spouses … DOMA is a big barrier,” Sarvis said.
Belkin also acknowledged that a number of tasks will remain even after certification takes place and open service is implemented — although he said he doesn’t know if the Palm Center would be the best organization to address them.
Among the outstanding jobs that Belkin cited are providing employee resources to liaison between gay troops and the Pentagon; promoting public education on transgender people in the U.S. military; and working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to create programming for gay service members.
Beyond the upcoming year, Belkin said he isn’t sure what tasks the Palm Center will pursue, but added he suspects consultation with other organizations could be on the agenda.
“We’ll be offering advice or pro-bono consulting to any organization that wants to learn some of the lessons that we learned along the way about public education and how to use social science to inform public policy conversations,” Belkin said.
Pro-LGBT groups that took on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of a portfolio that included other issues plan to continue to use resources for other items on the agenda.
Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, said his organization last year contributed about $3.5 million to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal effort. But he cautioned against asking where that money would go this year.
“It’s not necessarily a fair posit to say, ‘You have these resources, which you dedicated to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” what are you going to do with that pot of money now?’” Sainz said. “Because as you know, the ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] issue changed considerably over the course of the year and we don’t yet know either the opportunities or the vulnerabilities that we have going into this coming year.”
One lingering question: What will anti-gay groups dedicated to keeping “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the books do now that legislative action on repealing the law is complete.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Michigan-based Center for Military Readiness, was among the leading advocates attempting to stop gays from serving openly in the military. The “forced intimacy” of having gay troops serve with straight service members was among her favorite phrases.
The Center for Military Readiness didn’t respond to multiple requests on what the organization will pursue now that legislation has been passed to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Belkin noted that Donnelly pursued keeping gays out of the military as part of a broader effort that includes preventing women from serving in combat.
“Her broad concern is the feminization of the military,” Belkin said. “So, there are a lot of ways in which she has tried to roll the country back to the 20th or the 19th century, so she has plenty of culture wars left to fight.”
Whether groups that have focused on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will have reduced resources now that legislative action is complete also remains in question.
Sarvis said “time will tell” what kind of resources SLDN will have as he acknowledged the organization’s board approved in November — and reaffirmed in December — a slightly smaller budget from what it had last year.
According to Sarvis, SLDN’s board approved a budget for 2011 that was around 12.5 percent smaller than it was in 2010. He said it decreased from $2.4 million to $2.2 million.
Belkin said he doesn’t think the Palm Center will have same budget as it had in previous years and said the organization plans to stop fundraising.
“We have endowments that will keep sustaining us at a lower level capacity, but, I think, for the most part, once “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is gone, then the biggest part of our mission will be over, and we’ll be one of those organizations that’s fortunate enough to say, ‘Our goals have been met,’” Belkin said.
Servicemembers United couldn’t be reached for comment on what the organization intends to pursue now that legislative action on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal is complete.