By BEN BROOKS
Last month, I was among more than 1,000 proud Americans aboard the USS Intrepid in New York City celebrating the one-year anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As important as it was to mark the end of this discriminatory law with celebration for those gay, lesbian and bisexual service members who will never again have to fear losing their careers because of who they are, it’s also important to understand why this is one of the most significant civil rights victories in decades and how it will accelerate LGBT equality.
It is estimated that more than 90,000 service members were discharged from the military under DADT and previous anti-gay policies. Further, there are an estimated 1 million LGBT veterans and 65,000 LGBT active duty service members and reservists who have served and are serving our country to defend us and our nation.
Fortunately, in December 2010, President Obama signed into law legislation passed by a filibuster-proof 65 senators and DADT was officially dead on Sept. 20, 2011, with more than 80 percent of Americans supporting repeal of the discriminatory law. This was a strategic and significant victory in the context of our overall march to equality.
You see, the Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world with 3.2 million total staff, is a major component of the federal budget, a significant driver of GDP, and an important cultural piece of American patriotism that spans political affiliation, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The DoD serves a critical social justice role by providing a compelling career and educational path for those who often don’t have other options.
It is a microcosm of our diverse nation and has attracted significant talent. It is arguably the best leadership development environment on the planet. And the geographic footprint of the military is mostly in areas that the LGBT movement has struggled to gain traction. Indeed, the military has a rich tradition in our country of making an impact when it comes to civil rights advances, and this victory over DADT is a prize worth winning.
A central argument to repealing DADT was integrity. In fact, Admiral Mike Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was instrumental in arguing for repeal on the basis of its alignment with the core values of the military. And despite the concerns raised by opponents of repeal, implementation of the commander in chief’s orders has gone exceedingly well.
Yet, while we celebrate the many great things that have happened since DADT repeal just over a year ago, our gay and lesbian service members are still not treated equally. Because of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, military couples and families, who happen to be gay or lesbian, do not qualify for medical benefits, base housing, relocation, base services and subsidies, duty assignments, and survivor benefits that are a core component of a military career. It’s unconscionable that these brave men and women (and their families), who serve next to their straight colleagues and fulfill the same orders and risk their lives, are treated differently by our government. We cannot stop until we complete this mission – and the mission of full LGBT equality in our military.
So as we reflect on the one-year anniversary of DADT repeal, I hope we realize the strategic importance of this victory in the LGBT equality movement and that we have more work to do to finish the job so that all those fit and willing to serve are treated equally. If we do that successfully, we will have laid the groundwork for full LGBT equality in civilian society.
Ben Brooks is a member of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network board of directors and is senior vice president at a Fortune 250 professional services firm. He lives in Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter, @benbrooksny.