President Obama earned praise from many LGBT advocates on Tuesday for pledging during his State of the Union address to implement an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the year is out.
In his speech, Obama observed that members of the U.S. military come from “every corner of this country” and are black, white, Christian, Jewish and Muslim.
“And, yes, we know that some of them are gay,” Obama said. “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”
In the House chamber, where Obama delivered the speech before a joint session of Congress, lawmakers reacted to the remarks largely along party lines — with Democrats applauding the comments and Republicans taking no action.
Among those who stood as they applauded were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who were both seen as key in pushing forward legislation allowing for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” last year.
Notably, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the leading opponent in the U.S. Senate last year of repealing the military’s gay ban, also applauded following Obama’s remarks on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The president’s remarks suggested that he will issue certification for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the end of the year. Under the law Obama signed on Dec. 22, repeal won’t take effect until he, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify the U.S. military is ready for repeal.
Asked via e-mail to clarify whether the remarks indeed mean Obama is committed to issuing certification before the year is out, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, confirmed that indeed is the president’s plan.
In a statement, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said his organization is “pleased” the president expects that gays will be able to serve openly in the U.S. military by the end of the year.
“In fact, we think there should be certification from the president, Secretary Robert Gates and JCS Chairman Michael Mullen in this quarter,” Sarvis said. “We need to make ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal a reality sooner rather than later.”
Obama immediately followed his remarks on allowing gays to serve in the military by stating that the time has come for colleges to allow military recruiters and ROTC programs back on campus. Some schools had prohibited the military from recruiting on campus because “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” conflicts with their non-discrimination policies.
“And with that change, I call on all our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and ROTC,” Obama said. “It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.”
But Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said schools with non-discrimination policies protecting LGBT people should continue prohibiting the military from coming to campus — even after repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — because openly transgender people still aren’t allowed in the armed forces.
“Students on campuses like Stanford and Harvard have already pointed out that the repeal of this policy, while an improvement, still does not allow transgender people to serve openly or to join the military,” she said. “We support the organizing efforts of students on those campuses and others in continuing to advocate for the exclusion of the military from their campuses as long as the military continues to discriminate.”
Obama mentioned other initiatives during his speech that were welcome news for LGBT advocates — even though they weren’t specifically LGBT-related — because they represented opportunities to pass pro-gay legislation.
During his address, the president said he “strongly believe[s]” Congress should “take on” the issue of illegal immigration and renewed his call for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
“I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows,” he said. “And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.”
Passage of immigration reform could present an opportunity to include the Uniting American Families Act — legislation that would end restrictions prohibiting bi-national same-sex couples from staying together in the United States.
Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said “it’s good to hear” that immigration remains a priority for the administration.
“It is an issue where there is room for bi-partisan agreement,” Ralls said. “I think on both sides of the political aisle, there’s recognition that comprehensive immigration reform needs to be tackled.”
Ralls said a UAFA-inclusive comprehensive immigration reform bill “does provide the best opportunity to move UAFA forward” in Congress.
Also during his speech, Obama expressed his desire to renew education laws that are currently on the books, which could present Congress the opportunity to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act or the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
Obama said the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law should be replaced “with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”
“You see, we know what’s possible from our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities,” he said.
Passage of federal anti-bullying legislation received renewed attention late last year in the wake of a rash of suicides of gay teens who reportedly took their own lives after they had been bullied.
Despite Obama’s call to update federal education laws, Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said she’s disappointed the president didn’t explicitly address bullying in his speech.
“It was disappointing to hear nothing about the need for schools to foster a culture of respect amid all the talk of high standards and in the wake of seismic waves of tragedy for our community last fall,” Byard said. “Students can’t achieve, innovate and graduate if they’re scared to go to school, and we all lose if they grow up in a culture where difference is despised.”
Other LGBT rights supporters also expressed disappointment that Obama didn’t go further in his speech to address other issues, such as employment non-discrimination and marriage rights.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said Obama shouldn’t settle on repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the final accomplishment for the LGBT community.
“If the president is truly serious about job creation and boosting America’s economic well-being, he must provide leadership and action in helping to pass employment protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and ending the costly and unjust federal marriage ban,” Carey said.
But the president’s State of the Union address predominantly focused on spurring job growth through education and infrastructure improvements as well as deficit reduction by cutting federal government programs.
“Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation,” Obama said. “But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.”
Obama called this time for the country a “Sputnik moment,” recalling how even though the Soviet Union launched the first person into space in the 1950s, the United States was able to beat Russia in the space race by landing the first person on the moon.
In an online video response to the State of the Union address, lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said the president “put out a challenge not just to compete to the global marketplace, but to win.”
“We know that in order to do that, we need to have the best educated workforce, the most innovative scientists and the most creative entrepreneurs,” Baldwin said. “I’m excited about this challenge because I know we can do it — and I plan on bringing some great Wisconsin ideas to the table as we respond to this challenge.”