PHILADELPHIA — A White House official sidestepped a question in public discussion — but left the door open — on whether the Obama administration would support passing a delayed implementation bill for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the Pentagon completes its study of the law.
The question, raised by Washington Blade Editor Kevin Naff, came up during a panel discussion Saturday at the Equality Forum — an annual LGBT summit in Philadelphia — where discontent with the Obama administration’s opposition to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year dominated much of the talk among panelists.
Brian Bond, LGBT liaison for the White House, fielded questions on the White House’s lack of support for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which recently came to fore with the publication of a letter Friday from Defense Secretary Robert Gates asking Congress to hold off on ending the law.
When the letter came up during a panel discussion highlighting LGBT officials in the White House, Bond read the prepared White House statement on how Obama’s commitment to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is “unequivocal,” but the president wants to wait on implementing repeal until the Pentagon completes its study of the law.
“If change were easy, we wouldn’t be having to have this fight right now,” Bond added. “I think that letter is a good example of how this is going to be a fight and a challenge.”
In response to the statement, Naff noted the White House seems to rules out full repeal at this time but leaves the door open for legislation with delayed implementation, and asked whether repeal advocates can infer that the president supports repeal “as long as the implementation is delayed until after December.”
Bond didn’t say whether the White House supports such a move but said an endorsement of such a proposal is part of an “ongoing discussion.”
“I think that’s an ongoing discussion right now,” Bond replied. “Again, there are several camps here trying to figure out — don’t forget, at the end of the day, it is Congress that will repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ not us.”
Bond maintained the president is committed to his campaign promise to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and said the president has made clear “on any number of times that we are working on this.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” Bond said. “It’s going to messy. It was about this same time last year that my phone was blowing up and my e-mails were blowing up that we’re not going to get hate crimes done. So, I guess what I would say to you is the president has not changed his position.”
Bond said there are many stakeholders involved in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” including Congress, which he called “a key part of this process.”
“I think you need to keep pushing us, quite frankly,” Bond said. “I think you need to keep working with your members of Congress and I think you need to keep your voices being heard, but I got to tell you, the president is on our side on this.”
Bond’s assurances didn’t assuage many advocates on the panel, who expressed disappointment with the work Obama accomplished on LGBT issues in the nearly one-and-a-half years that he’s been in office.
Panel moderator Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said his organization isn’t a political lobbying group, but noted a growing impatience in the LGBT community for Obama to enact his campaign promises from 2008.
“We are impatient and, I think, a lot of the folks out there are impatient,” he said. “Whether it was the ‘fierce advocate’ speech, or whether it was the campaign, we heard a little bit more zeal than we feel right now.”
Bond said Obama is working to live up to his “fierce advocate” pledge by taking some steps toward “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“If you’re going to talk about the president being a ‘fierce advocate,’ I think you have to give the president credit for getting this ball rolling,” Bond said. “It was in the State of the Union address in front of millions of Americans where he started this ball rolling.”
Bond also noted the Obama administration came up with regulations to limit third-party outings under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and to raise the rank of officers conducting inquiries and discharges.
“I think you can put many layers on what you want to call a ‘fierce advocate,’ but I think you have a president that’s thinking very smart, very strategically — and he’s out there on this issue — where he stands and where we want to go,” Bond said.
Still, Naff expressed particular displeasure with the Obama’s refusal to call for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal this year.
“I find it deeply troubling that the administration will not say that it supports Congress taking a vote this year on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Naff said. “That is deeply disappointing.”
In a subsequent panel, Lt. Dan Choi, a gay Army infantry soldier who twice chained himself this year to the White House gates in protest over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” also had stern words for the president on this issue and gave the president a “D-“ for his handling of LGBT issues in general.
“I’m absolutely dissatisfied by the thinking of the entire administration that hundreds of soldiers to lose their jobs this year is not as important as a handful of Democrats who might lose their jobs,” Choi said.
Noting some LGBT groups have been calling to put pressure on certain lawmakers to advance repeal, Choi said the only way lawmakers would agree to pass such a measure as part of defense budget legislation would be if Obama transmitted language to end the law as activists have been pressing him to do.
“That vote will pass and all of those lobbying groups that are saying only put your attention to those senators — and don’t you dare criticize the president — I think we’re going to look back on this time and see our strategic blunder,” Choi said.
If Congress doesn’t pass repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year, Choi predicted it could be another 10 or 20 years before another opportunity comes around for repeal.
Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Forum, said he thinks Obama set up the Pentagon study to avoid a vote on a politically charged issue.
“Likely it’s an overriding political consideration that they don’t want this issue to be coming up before the mid-terms elections,” he said. “They don’t want to energize the right or influence the middle, so I think this is likely a political decision.”
Lazin said he thinks the study is seen also as the way of integrating LGBT people in the military, which is known for being a conservative institution, with limited political blowback, but he added “obviously as an activist, that’s not what I want to hear.”
But Choi called the study inot only “an insult” to the LGBT community, but an affront to “Americans’ abilities to make logical decisions” as they observe allied nations and U.S. agencies have LGBT people serving openly with no problems.
Other issues related to the White House’s position on repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” emerged during the panel discussion.
Choi offered limited details about his planned participation in a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” protest on Sunday. He said a court order following his second arrest prohibits him from entering the sidewalk around the White House unless invited by an official, but the order doesn’t prevent him from entering Lafayette Park where the protest is planned.
“There’s always a risk,” Choi said. “In fact, there’s a risk for me being here rignt now. The fact that I’m here — I believe some would construe it as undignified and perhaps radical on my part as an Army officer.”
Even though his discharge is pending under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and he’s been arrested in two separate acts of civil disobedience, Choi said he’s still serving in the Army National Guard and had participated in Army training work last weekend.
Taking a question from someone writing an e-mail to panel, Barrios questioned Bond about reports on how Servicemembers Legal Defense Network has been disinvited to White House meetings for raising too much opposition to Obama on his plan for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Aubrey Sarvis, the group’s executive director, has said he wasn’t invited to a February 1 meeting with Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina.
“It’s obviously a little chilling if one could lead a conversation and then be excluded,” Barrios added.
Bond said he wouldn’t go into details, but added SLDN has been involved “in some very key, very small meetings with senior officials from the administration as well as other broad meetings.”
“I’m not going to go into the specifics on any one particular meeting,” Bond said. “I don’t think it’s fair to SLDN or to the administration to do that, but I can assure you, as late as last night, I was in a dialogue with Aubrey, and Aubrey has been in meetings, and we do consider him a partner — and SLDN a partner — in this process of repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”
Discussing a topic unrelated to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Bond alluded to future news about an action from Obama that would build off his memorandum last year mandating some benefits — excluding health and pension benefits — for LGBT federal workers with same-sex partners.
Bond noted a component of the memorandum was offering opportunities for LGBT Foreign Service officers in the State Department so they can bring their same-sex partners with them to post while abroad.
“I think you may remember the president’s memorandum which offers what benefits we could around [the Defense of Marriage Act,]’ quite frankly — mostly health care related — and then there’s a follow up coming out very soon on that as well affecting the other agencies, or several other agencies,” he said.
Bond didn’t offer any other details on this future move from the president and didn’t take press inquiries following the panel discussion.