A gay military group is accusing the White House of excluding the organization from an event intended to highlight U.S. service members and their families.
For the Tuesday event — in which first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden were set to launch the “Joining Forces” campaign to focus attention on the struggles of military families — the White House invited service members and representatives from other military groups.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, told the Washington Blade his group was denied access to the event, even though his group had been lobbying for participation.
“For two weeks now, they’ve refused to give any representative of gay families and service members a slot at this event that’s supposed to honor all service members and military families,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson said he met last week with White House officials on possible participation and was given “excuse after excuse” as a reason for why his group couldn’t take part.
According to Nicholson, White House officials said veterans’ groups wouldn’t be able to attend. However, these groups — such as Iraq/Afganistan Veterans of America – in fact participated in the event.
Further, Nicholson said he was reminded “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is still being enforced, so gay service members who were in attendance could be in danger of discharge.
“When we pointed out that we — like the other straight organizations that are going to be there — would be happy to use an organizational staff member to represent them — somebody who’s not subject to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ — they it changed to, ‘Well, this event’s not about veterans, it’s about service members and families,” Nicholson said.
Kristina Schake, communications director for the first lady, confirmed that gay military groups were unable to participate at the “Joining Forces” event, but said the administration would work with them more after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books.
“The president has been crystal clear that the administration is moving forward with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ quickly and efficiently,” Schake said. “However, it still remains the law. The White House, including the first lady and Dr. Biden, look forward to working with the families of gay and lesbian service members after certification occurs and repeal goes into effect.”
In December, President Obama signed a bill allowing for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” However, repeal won’t go into effect until the president, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the U.S. military is ready for repeal and 60 days pass after that action.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, similarly said exclusion of gay military groups from the White House event was appropriate at this time.
“We believe that the first lady and the White House could have been putting gay and lesbian service members at risk to include them in this week’s events before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal is complete,” Sarvis said. “Our primary concern remains protecting the lives and careers of gays and lesbians serving our country honorably while we await certification and repeal that will allow them to do it openly and without fear of discharge.”
An informed source said SLDN wasn’t seeking involvement in the “Joining Forces” event. Nicholson said to his knowledge Servicemembers United was the only gay organization asking to participate.
Nicholson speculated that the White House excluded his organization from the event because of “lingering political homophobia.”
“I think they’re afraid to mix the gays with the straight military and veteran crowd right now,” Nicholson said. “There’s just no logical excuse why they would have to exclude a civilian representative of gay military families and service members from an event at which our counterparts are going to be represented in full force in the straight community.”
During a news conference on Tuesday, the Washington Times’ Kara Rowland asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney whether the administration had “missed an opportunity” by excluding gay military groups from the “Joining Forces” event. Carney said he didn’t immediately have an answer.
“If you want, I can take this question, but I think you’re conflating here a couple of things,” Carney said. “But why don’t I take that and get back to you.”