The anti-gay law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally came to an end on Sept. 20 after prohibiting open gays from serving in the U.S. military for 18 years.
No other news event had as much impact on the LGBT community as the lifting of the ban — allowing an estimated 66,000 gay people to begin serving openly — which is why we’re naming the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the story of the year for 2011.
The law came to an end thanks to repeal legislation that President Obama signed into law in December 2010. The bill provided for an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after 60 days passed following certification from the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
After months of training and preparing service members for open service, Obama and defense leaders sent notification to Congress that they had certified an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on July 22. In accordance with the repeal legislation, the ban was lifted 60 days later from the books.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicmembers United, said the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the result of “persistent hard work of unwavering advocates, especially those who have been directly impacted by this issue, and some courageous politicians over the past six years.”
“As a result, those who continue to serve can sleep easier tonight knowing that they can no longer be arbitrarily fired because of their sexual orientation,” Nicholson said. “Justice has prevailed and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is dead.”
According to Servicemembers United, an estimated 14,346 service members were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” over the course of 18 years before the ban was lifted.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, called the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a “historic milestone along the journey to achieving LGBT equality in America’s military.”
“Thanks to veterans, active duty, leaders, allies and supporters everywhere, this is a monumental day for our service members and our nation,” Sarvis said. “Indeed, we have taken a tremendous leap forward for LGBT equality in the military.”
In the wake of lifting the ban, a number of service members who had previously kept their sexual orientation hidden made public the fact that they are gay. Air Force 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, co-director of the group OutServe who formerly went under the alias J.D. Smith, was among those who made his sexual orientation known.
Seefried, a New Jersey-based finance director for the Air Force, said during a news conference on Sept. 20 that being able to take part fully in the military family was particularly important to him.
“That’s what the military brags about so much is having that aspect of being part of the family, being part of the team,” Seefried said. “I almost resented the Air Force for not giving me that opportunity to be part of that team, not being able to bring someone to an event. Now I feel like I can go back to work and I can be part of that team now and actually be honest.”
Capt. Sarah Pezzat, a D.C.-based Marine Corps reservist who served in operations in Haiti, Iraq and Somalia, said at the same event that the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” made Sept. 20 feel markedly different than previous days.
“For me, it feels different because I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” Pezzat said. “I can post about it on Facebook, I can tell my co-workers if I want to what I did last weekend, things like that.”
The end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” preceded a number of other firsts for the U.S. military after the implementation of open service. For example, at the Marine Corps balls throughout the country where attendees celebrated the service’s 236th birthday, gay Marines attended with same-sex partners for the first time.
Observers have also said the end of the military’s ban would make gay service members more visible, and, in turn, build on efforts to advance same-sex marriage or employment non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT research and communications project at the Center for American Progress, said prior to the lifting of the ban that open service would be significant for many Americans — not just those in the military.
“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal is huge and tremendous, but I think there are much larger implications for society because a lot of people really respect the military,” Krehely said.