Activists are ramping up efforts this year to push for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” while remembering that similar optimism in 1993 on lifting the ban on gays serving openly led to the law’s creation.
Last week, President Obama affirmed his commitment during the State of the Union address to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” noting that he’d work this year with Congress and military leaders to end the law. His announcement brought new life to the issue in the mainstream media and among activist groups.
But amid this activity, the shadow of what took place in 1993, when LGBT advocates had similar optimism about lifting the ban, is influencing the work that’s happening today.
When former President Bill Clinton took office 17 years ago, advocates expected him to fulfill his campaign pledge to end the ban preventing gays from serving in the military. Since there was no federal law on the issue at the time, the only step required to end the ban was administrative action.
But resistance from Congress — particularly from then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn — and opposition from military leaders such as then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell thwarted Clinton’s efforts to end the ban.
The result was the 1993 law that came to be known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which at the time was billed as a compromise because it would ostensibly allow gays to serve in the U.S. military provided they didn’t disclose their sexual orientation.
Many activists have said Clinton was unable to fulfill his promise to end the ban because the LGBT community didn’t provide him with sufficient political cover to accomplish his goal.
Clinton also holds this view. After gay activist Lane Hudson questioned him on the matter last year during the Netroots Nation conference, Clinton told an audience of bloggers that advocates in 1993 “couldn’t deliver” support in the Congress needed to administratively end the ban.
David Smith, vice president of programs for the Human Rights Campaign, in 1993 was communications director for the Campaign for Military Service, a group that worked to help guide Clinton’s efforts to repeal the ban. While acknowledging LGBT activists made some possible missteps at the time, Smith told DC Agenda that a number of obstacles contributed to the creation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” not just deficiencies from activists.
“You had a very exuberant, politically naïve community combined with a politically naïve new president, a Democratic-controlled Congress that wasn’t all that enthusiastic about lifting the ban, and you had a Republican minority in Congress that was dying to regain the majority and inflict political harm on the new president and the Democratic Congress,” Smith said.
Smith said the LGBT community might have fared better if the issue had come up later in Clinton’s term as opposed to soon after he took office.
“In retrospect, I think if the community would have waited a year or two to better understand military resistance and understand congressional resistance, and mapped out a plan, Congress wouldn’t have been so quick to impose a law, and there might have been a different path,” Smith said.
Nathaniel Frank, author of “Unfriendly Fire” and research fellow at the Palm Center, a think-tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was similarly reluctant to ascribe the failure of lifting the ban in 1993 solely to shortcomings from the LGBT community.
“Yes, the gay community could have done more if it was bigger, more organized, better funded,” Frank said. “Political leaders need the pressure of constituents to help them get done what they need to get done, but I think that President Clinton there was really evading responsibility.”
Learning from mistakes
Whatever responsibility LGBT supporters had in creating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” activists this year are learning from mistakes made at that time to support Obama in his goal of repealing the law.
Smith said one of the lessons learned from 1993 on repeal is to make tactical decisions after thoughtful planning. He noted that his organization has been “quietly pressing for action” for months on this issue in Congress and in the administration.
A more public campaign, Smith said, will launch soon and target states with lawmakers who would be key to overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Smith estimated the campaign would cost more than $2 million and would involve grassroots and grasstops efforts as well as earned and paid media.
“It’s very targeted, but again it’s still unclear exactly how this is going to unfold and it could go in any number of directions,” Smith said. “We need to be ready to deal with whatever direction it does go in to make sure the ultimate outcome is what we all expect.”
Smith declined to comment on which states HRC would target in its campaign or what the comment of earned and paid media, saying that such information needed to remain confidential for tactical reasons.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said his organization also is ramping up efforts amid the greater push to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“We always hoped it would happen sooner rather than later, but I think it’s definitely been a surprise that the president has decided to include this issue in the State of the Union and to move forward on this quickly,” Nicholson said. “So we’re obviously trying to rapidly expand our capacity, roll out a number of campaigns and initiatives that we wanted to get underway.”
Nicholson said Servicemembers United has been getting numerous media calls and has been identifying LGBT service members and veterans to respond to those requests. He also noted that his organization is trying to identify high-ranking retired military members who are straight and support allowing gays to serve openly.
Additionally, Nicholson said organizations opposed to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are having a larger number of collaborative meetings and working to “share information, share intelligence, share resources, work together more closely.”
But the lessons learned from 1993 are hanging over all efforts to repeal the law this year. Frank said advocates of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should keep in mind the arguments that opponents of gays in the military used then in the new push for overturning the law.
“The first thing that gay advocates should do is understand the history of the tactics the people used the last time — the fear tactics, the delay tactics, the dishonesty, the slippery slope arguments — making this much scarier and complicated than it really is,” Frank said.
Frank also cautioned against underestimating the vehemence with which opponents of gays in the military will defend the status quo.
“The religious right has been somewhat quiet on social issues in the last year and the media have been quiet on social issues,” Frank said. “They haven’t been as big, but make no mistake, they’ll come roaring back, so it’s important not to underestimate the vehemence of homophobia and the strength of the opposition to reform in military or religious circles.”
Still, Frank said advocates should be ready to differentiate between those who have “genuine anxiety” about what the change means for the U.S. military and those who are expressing concern simply to block repeal.
While it’s unclear what opponents of repeal are planning this year, Smith said HRC is anticipating the traditional faces — such as Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council — to “get in their TV makeup” to build opposition to repealing the law.
Opponents of gays in the military are starting to emerge with familiar arguments that were often used in 1993.
Following Obama’s State of the Union address, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), who’s quickly becoming the primary opponent of any “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the U.S. Senate, issued a statement in support of current policy.
McCain noted that “we have the best trained, best equipped, and most professional force in the history of our country,” suggesting that ending the ban on gays serving openly would be detrimental to unit cohesion and take away from the U.S. military’s standing in the world.
Jarrod Chlapowksi, a gay U.S. Army veteran who supports HRC in its Voices of Honor tour, said “there’s a ton of ways” for supporters of repeal to approach McCain’s argument.
“The unit cohesion argument has been disproven numerous times,” he said. “We have the example of Israel. I don’t think anyone would say Israel has a weak military by any means, and that tends to be a pretty strong example. But there really is nothing supporting McCain’s position that this would be detrimental to unit cohesion.”
Another frequently used argument against allowing gays to serve in the military that could emerge again is concern about whether straight service members would be comfortable using shared shower facilities with gay troops.
But Chlapowksi said that concern can be allayed by noting that gay service members are already showering with straight troops and the change in policy hasn’t been shown to be disruptive in other countries.
“We already share showers, we already share foxholes, we already share barracks,” he said. “The only change is that you know who’s gay and who’s not. The reality is that’s not going to cause someone to go crazy and to make an exodus of troops.”
Even with the experience of 1993 looming over activists, much has changed in 17 years. Recent polls consistently show that a majority of the public supports repeal, and have even found that a majority of conservatives favor allowing gays to serve openly.
Smith said opponents of gays of military could thus have the issue backfire on them if they handle it incorrectly.
“The country is facing economic hardship, two wars — and if Republicans spend a lot of time trying to create political animosity around this issue, it could backfire on them big time,” Smith said. “But our opposition is not to be underestimated.”
Gay man shot to death on NYC subway train
Police say shooting was random and unprovoked
A gay man became the latest victim of a New York City subway shooting on Sunday when police say a male suspect shot Daniel Enriquez, 48, in the chest in an unprovoked random act inside a subway car traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Police on Tuesday arrested Andrew Abdullah, 25, who they identified as the sole suspect in the shooting, after attorneys representing him from the Legal Aid Society attempted to arrange for his surrender, according to a report by NBC 4 News in New York.
Police said the shooting occurred around 11:42 a.m. while the train was traveling over the Manhattan Bridge. The then unidentified suspect walked off the train and disappeared into a crowd of people when the train stopped at the Canal Street station minutes after Enriquez lay dying on the floor on the train car, police said.
Possibly based on the viewing of images from video surveillance cameras, police sources told the New York Times that investigators identified the suspect as Abdullah whose last known residence was in Manhattan, as a suspect in the fatal shooting. NYPD officials released two photos of Abdullah and appealed to the public for help in finding him.
Adam Pollack, Enriquez’s partner of 18 years, told both the Times and the New York Post that Enriquez took the subway to meet his brother for brunch. According to Pollack, Enriquez previously had taken Ubers into Manhattan, where he worked and socialized, from the couple’s home in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. But in recent weeks the cost of taking an Uber rose dramatically to more than $80 for the round-trip fare, prompting Enriquez to begin taking the subway, Pollack told the Times and Post.
“I don’t love the subway,” the Post quoted Pollack as saying. “I know how dangerous New York is. It took me two years to get back on the subway. I don’t feel safe on the subway,” he said.
The fatal shooting of Enriquez took place six weeks after another gunman identified as Frank R. James began shooting inside a crowded rush-hour subway car in Brooklyn, injuring at least 23 people.
Pollack told the Times his partner was a native New Yorker who worked as a researcher for the Goldman Sachs investment bank in Manhattan. Enriquez was the eldest of five children and a beloved uncle known for taking his nieces and nephews for ice cream in local parks and out to amusement parks when he visited them, Pollack told the Times.
When asked by the Washington Blade if any evidence has surfaced to indicate suspect Abdullah targeted Enriquez because he thought Enriquez was gay, a police public information officer said the investigation into the incident was continuing.
“There’s nothing on that now,” the officer said. “Everything, the motive, and all of that stuff, is part of the investigation and that is still ongoing. So, there’s no comment on that yet.”
The Times reports that court records show Abdullah, who is now in police custody, was charged along with others in 2017 in an 83-count indictment for alleged gang related activity. The following year he pleaded guilty to criminal possession of weapons and other charges in 2018 and was sentenced the following year to a prison term and released on parole several months later.
According to the Times, he faced new gun charges in 2020, was charged in 2021 with assault and endangering a child, and in April of this year was charged with possession of stolen property and unauthorized use of a vehicle.
“We are devastated by this senseless tragedy and our deepest sympathies are with Dan’s family at this difficult time,” Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon said in a statement.
Federal judge blocks White House from ending Title 42
Advocacy groups say policy further endangered LGBTQ asylum seekers
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic was to have ended Monday, but it remains in place after a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s plans to end it.
The White House last month announced it would terminate Title 42, a policy the previous administration implemented in March 2020.
U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays in Louisiana on May 20 issued a ruling that prevented the Biden administration from terminating the Trump-era policy. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement announced the Justice Department will appeal the decision, while adding the administration “will continue to enforce the CDC’s 2020 Title 42 public health authority pending the appeal.”
“This means that migrants who attempt to enter the United States unlawfully will be subject to expulsion under Title 42, as well as immigration consequences such as removal under Title 8 (of the U.S. Code),” said Jean-Pierre.
Advocacy groups and members of Congress with whom the Washington Blade has spoken since Title 42 took effect say it continues to place LGBTQ asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups who seek refuge in the U.S. at even more risk.
Oluchi Omeoga, co-director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, last month described Title 42 as a “racist and harmful policy.” ORAM (Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration) Executive Director Steve Roth said Title 42 “put asylum seekers in harm’s way in border towns and prevented them from seeking safety in the United States.”
Title 42 was to have ended less than a month after five members of Congress from California visited two LGBTQ shelters for asylum seekers in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
The Council for Global Equality, which organized the trip, in a tweet after Summerhays issued his ruling described Title 42 as a “catastrophe.”
“The Biden administration cannot breathe a sign of relief until it’s a matter of the past,” said the Council for Global Equality on Saturday. “We remain committed to end Title 42.”
— The Council for Global Equality (@Global_Equality) May 20, 2022
U.S. Army considers allowing LGBTQ troops to transfer from hostile states
Proposed guidance remains in draft form
A draft policy is circulating among top officials of the U.S. Army that would allow soldiers to be able to request a transfer if they feel state or local laws discriminate against them based on gender, sex, religion, race or pregnancy.
Steve Beynon writing for Military.com reported last week the guidance, which would update a vague service policy to add specific language on discrimination, is far from final and would need approval from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. But if enacted, it could be one of the most progressive policies for the Army amid a growing wave of local anti-LGBTQ and restrictive contraception laws in conservative-leaning states, where the Army has a majority of its bases and major commands.
“Some states are becoming untenable to live in; there’s a rise in hate crimes and rise in LGBT discrimination,” Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America, an advocacy group, told Military.com. “In order to serve this country, people need to be able to do their job and know their families are safe. All of these states get billions for bases but barely tolerate a lot of the service members.”
This policy tweak to the existing Army regulations pertaining to compassionate reassignment would clarify the current standard rules, which are oft times fairly vague.
A source in the Army told Beynon the new guidance has not yet been fully worked out through the policy planning process or briefed to senior leaders including the Army secretary or the office of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“The Army does not comment on leaked, draft documents,” Angel Tomko, a service spokesperson, told Military.com in an emailed statement. “AR 600-100 and 600-200 establish the criteria for which soldiers may request for a compassionate reassignment. The chain of command is responsible for ensuring soldiers and families’ needs are supported and maintain a high quality of life.”
The Crystal City-based RAND Corporation had published a study on sexual orientation, gender identity and health among active duty servicemembers in 2015 that listed approximate six percent of LGBTQ troops are gay or bisexual and one percent are trans or nonbinary.
A senior analyst for RAND told the Washington Blade on background those numbers are likely much lower than in actuality as 2015 was less than four years after the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and prior to when the Trump administration enacted the trans servicemember ban in 2017, which has had a chilling effect on open service.
The Biden administration repealed the Trump ban.
Another factor is that the current 18-24 year old troops colloquially referred to as “Gen Z” are much more inclined to embrace an LGBTQ identity and that would cause the numbers to be higher than reported.
Also factored in is uncertainty in the tweaking of policy in light of the recent leak of the draft U.S. Supreme Court decision that would effectively repeal Roe v. Wade.
According to Military.com it’s unclear whether the Army’s inclusion of pregnancy on the list would protect reproductive care for soldiers if Roe v. Wade is overturned. That language could be intended to protect pregnant service members or their families from employment or other discrimination, but could also be a means for some to argue for transfers based on broader reproductive rights.
One advocacy group pointed out that the current wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation will negatively impact the moral of service members:
“What we’re seeing across the board is a small group of elected officials who are trying to politicize and weaponize LGBTQ identities in despicable ways. They’re not only doing that to our youth, but the collateral damage is hurting our service members,” Jacob Thomas, communications director for Common Defense, a progressive advocacy organization, told Military.com. “[Troops] can’t be forced to live in places where they aren’t seen as fully human.”
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