President Obama and Pentagon leaders gave the green light on Friday to start the 60-day time period for when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be off the books and openly gay Americans will be entirely free to serve in the U.S. military.
After consultation during a Friday meeting at the White House, Obama — along with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen — issued certification to Congress that the armed forces are ready for open service.
“Today, we have taken the final major step toward ending the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law that undermines our military readiness and violates American principles of fairness and equality,” Obama said in a statement. “In accordance with the legislation that I signed into law last December, I have certified and notified Congress that the requirements for repeal have been met. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ will end, once and for all, in 60 days—on September 20, 2011.”
Under the repeal law signed in December, the military’s gay ban will be lifted once the president, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify the armed forces are ready for open service. Consequently, now that repeal has been certified, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be off the books on Sept. 20.
“I believe the U.S. armed forces are ready for the implementation of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Mullen said in a statement. “I conveyed that opinion yesterday to the President and to the secretary of defense, and today we certified this to Congress. My opinion is informed by close consultation with the service chiefs and the combatant commanders over the course of six months of thorough preparation and assessment, to include the training of a substantial majority of our troops.”
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the “final countdown to repeal begins today” as a result of certification.
“Service members celebrate this historic announcement, and they are ready for this change,” Sarvis said. “Our nation’s top military leaders have testified that commanders see no significant challenges ahead, and now the president, Secretary Panetta, and Chairman Mullen have certified to Congress that the armed forces are prepared for the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said certification of repeal means gay service members can “breath a huge sigh of relief.”
“While we still must wait 60 days for this change to formally take effect and for the law to officially be off the books, this step is nothing short of historic,” Nicholson said. ”This is the final nail in the coffin for the discriminatory, outdated, and harmful ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law.”
Gay service members who had left the U.S. military because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hailed certification for repeal as an important milestone.
Stacey Vasquez, a former Army recruiter who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2003, said she finds it hard to believe that the long struggle to end the military’s gay ban is finally coming to an end.
“I think it’s hard for me to put into words because there have been so many steps for me,” Vasquez said. “I went through a court battle for seven years and worked on repeal in my job for a year, and then I’ve lobbied Congress for nine years.”
She continued, “I don’t know if you’ve had one of those moments where you say, ‘Is it really done because you’ve had so many steps and you feel like you move forward and then you move back a step? I’m kind of thinking to myself, ‘Is it really done?’”
Still, Vasquez said she’s “happy” that certification has happened and plans to make an attempt to re-enlist in the Army after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books.
Brian Fricke, a gay Iraq war veteran who left the Marine Corps in 2005 because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” also said certification brings him a sense of relief. and vindication that he thinks is shared by other service members.
“For me, personally, there’s a sense of vindication,” he said. “When I left, I had a partner at the time and I was always afraid of being found out. I couldn’t relax when I was on my R&R away from work because I was fearful of that.
Additionally, Fricke said he thinks other service members will share his feelings following the formal lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“I feel like a lot of the gay and lesbian troops are going to feel a lot of relief immediately, even if they’re not going to come out to people,” he said. ”They are going to be able to relax when they’re off duty and be able to go in public to the movies and hold hands and not have to worry about retribution.”
Fricke wasn’t discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but opted not to enlist in 2005 because of the burden of serving under the military’s gay ban. He said he doesn’t plan to return to the armed forces.
Although “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will remain on the books until Sept. 20, discharges under the anti-gay law have already been halted. The Pentagon earlier this month put in place a moratorium on separations in response to a court order imposing an injunction against enforcing the anti-gay law.
As a result, gay service members can already serve openly without fear of discharge, although openly gay people are still barred from enlisting in the armed forces.
The injunction — initially issued last year by a California federal district court — was reinstituted earlier this month by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, pending litigation challenging the constitutionality of the military’s gay ban.
The moratorium on discharges could be lifted — making gay service members vulnerable once again — if the U.S. government succeeds in efforts to convince the court to place a stay on the injunction. On Monday, the Justice Department requested this stay and maintained the Obama administration wants an “orderly process for repealing” the military’s gay ban.
R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin’s executive director, issued a statement saying his organization’s lawsuit helped lead to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal certification.
“Log Cabin Republicans are proud to have helped put an end to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Cooper said. “It is our hope that the clear precedent established in federal court that will ensure an absolute end to this unconstitutional law.”
Even with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on its way to being off the books, supporters of open service say more work is necessary to ensure gay and straight service members stand on equal footing.
One option to address this issue is an executive order from the president that would ensure non-discrimination for gay service members. Currently, gay service members have no recourse outside of their chain of command if they feel they’re experiencing discrimination on the job.
Sarvis, who has called for such a directive since February, renewed his call this week for such an executive order on the basis that “every service member deserves equal respect in the work environment.”
“Signing legislation that allows for repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was necessary, but it is not sufficient for ensuring equality in the military,” Sarvis said. “It’s critical that gay and lesbian service members have the same avenues for recourse as their straight counterparts when it comes to harassment and discrimination.”
Other inequities exist between gay service members with partners or spouses and straight service members in marriages on issues such as living expenses and medical care, travel, housing benefits. Much of this inequity is because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
LGBT advocates are also expressing concerns about transgender people still being unable to serve openly in the U.S. military. But openly transgender Americans can’t serve openly not because of law, but by regulation — so the change could be implemented administratively.
An executive order prohibiting discrimination against service members based on sexual orientation and gender identity would also stop the separations of service members who come out as transgender.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, issued a reminder on Friday that transgender Americans are still unable to serve openly in the armed forces.
“NCTE rejoices whenever discriminatory laws end and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a discriminatory law and it needed to go,” Keisling said. “However, as repeal is certified, transgender servicemembers continue serving in silence. NCTE looks forward to the day when the U.S. armed forces ends discrimination in all its forms.”