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Recalling 1993, activists prepare for ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal push



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.

Familiar arguments

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.”



LGBTQ media ‘excited’ about Press Forward national media funds

Coalition of donors pledges $500 million for local news



Members of News Is Out, a collaborative of six leading LGBTQ media organizations across the country, have expressed support and excitement about the newly announced national Press Forward effort to support local media in the United States. News Is Out members represent more than 200 years of LGBTQ news and culture coverage, with two member papers starting more than 50 years ago.

“This new effort from foundations, including MacArthur Foundation and Knight Foundation, truly will be a game-changer in the local media space,” said Tracy Baim, co-founder of Windy City Times, which is part of a Chicago collaborative that is also advocating for local funding in that city. “Local media are critical to covering issues across the country, from LGBTQ+ and environmental issues to education and criminal justice reform. Philanthropy can provide an important complement to other needed revenues to help local media survive and thrive.”

In the U.S., 7.1 percent of adults, or 18 million people, identify as LGBTQ, according to Gallup. About 21 percent of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ. The media serving this community has been life-saving, resource sharing and an integral part of the movement for LGBTQ equality, News Is Out members said, adding that this media continues to fill a vital information need.

According to the Press Forward announcement, “A coalition of 22 donors announced Press Forward, a national initiative to strengthen communities and democracy by supporting local news and information with an infusion of more than a half-billion dollars over the next five years.

“Press Forward will enhance local journalism at an unprecedented level to re-center local news as a force for community cohesion; support new models and solutions that are ready to scale; and close longstanding inequities in journalism coverage and practice.”

The Knight Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have been leading the Press Forward effort.

News Is Out is supported in part by a technology grant from the Knight Foundation. The program is called the Queer Media Sustainability Lab

News Is Out is a nearly two-year-old alliance created launched by the Local Media Association, with initial funding from Google News Initiative. The members are Bay Area Reporter, Dallas Voice, Philadelphia Gay News, Washington Blade, Windy City Times and TAGG, a national queer women’s magazine.

News Is Out members have collaborated on editorial, business and fundraising opportunities.

“LGBTQ media have always played a critical role in covering and informing our communities,” said Lynne Brown, publisher of the Washington Blade. “While we have lost dozens of LGBTQ news media outlets in recent years, those of us who have survived are thriving in 2023. We have done so because we have innovated and sought new forms of revenue. The News Is Out Collaborative has assisted with support that propels us forward.”

“LGBTQ+ media is needed now more than ever, as our communities face a backlash across this country,” said Leo Cusimano, publisher of the Dallas Voice. “By working together in News Is Out, we have formed a strong alliance to help our members in technology training, editorial collaborations and much more. New funds into this ecosystem will be vital to strengthening the network of local LGBTQ+ media in this country.”

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Federal Government

Census Bureau asks White House to test questions on sexual orientation, gender identity

Data would be included in annual American Community Survey



U.S. Census Bureau (Photo credit: GSA)

The U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday asked the Biden administration to sign off on plans to test questions on sexual orientation and gender identity for respondents aged 15 and older on the agency’s annual American Community Survey.

Data on these metrics will help inform civil rights and equal employment enforcement, the Census Bureau said in a notice published on the Federal Register.

Testing will help the agency determine wording, response categories and placement of the questions on the survey — its most comprehensive, covering 3.5 million households each year.

A key unknown will be how answers will be provided by proxies such as parents, spouses or others in a household who isn’t the person about whom the question is asked.

“Younger LGBT people might not yet be out to their parents or others who are answering these questions as a proxy reporter, so the quality of the data might not be as good for younger people,” M. V. Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told PBS News.

Currently, the Census Bureau and its annual American Community Survey only ask questions about same-sex couples who are married or cohabitating.

“We anticipate having much more info about the LGBT people than is currently available — including about the demographic and socioeconomic status of LGBT people who aren’t in same-sex couple households, including occupational status, industry and wages, and about LGBT people who were born outside the U.S. and LGBT people with disabilities, and their families,” Kerith Conron, research director of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, told the Associated Press.

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Federal Government

Pentagon to restore honor to veterans kicked out over their sexual orientation

Legislation seeks accountability for DoD



U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (screen capture/YouTube/CNN)

The U.S. Department of Defense announced plans to restore honor to service members who were kicked out of the military over their sexual orientation, the agency announced on Wednesday, the 12th anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Over the past decade, we’ve tried to make it easier for service members discharged based on their sexual orientation to obtain corrective relief,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement.

“While this process can be difficult to navigate, we are working to make it more accessible and efficient,” he said, adding, “in the coming weeks, we will be initiating new outreach campaigns to encourage all service members and veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction to their military records.”

The move follows a class action lawsuit filed last month by LGBTQ veterans against the Pentagon for allegedly failing to remedy “ongoing discrimination,” including biased language in the discharge papers of LGBTQ veterans.

CBS News has investigated the Pentagon’s handling of service records of veterans who were kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation, revealing the broad scope of discrimination experienced by these LGBTQ veterans — finding, for instance, that more than 29,000 were denied honorable discharges.

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), along with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) re-introduced a bill that would establish “a commission to investigate the historic and ongoing impacts of discriminatory military policies on LGBTQ service members and veterans.”

“This commission would study the impact of these bigoted rules” barring LGBTQ troops from serving “and forge a more welcoming future in the military and at the VA,” said Takano, who serves as ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

“Our country has never made amends for official discriminatory policies like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the transgender military ban – and that failure still haunts today’s service members and veterans,” said Jacobs.

“That’s why I’m so proud to co-lead this bicameral legislation that will right these historic wrongs, investigate the past and present impact of anti-LGBTQ+ policies, and help us move forward to build and sustain a diverse, inclusive, strong, and welcoming military.”  

“This commission would be an important step to understand the full scope of the harms caused by policies like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and to ensure a more equitable future for all who serve our country in uniform,” Blumenthal said.

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