As gay and lesbian troops await the end of the 18-year-old ban on openly gay service members on Tuesday, observers say the change will have significant impact beyond the military.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will finally be lifted from the books thanks to the certification of repeal that President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen sent to Congress on July 22. In accordance with the repeal law that President Obama signed in December, certification started a 60-day timeclock for the end of the ban on Sept. 20.
Aaron Belkin, author of “How We Won,” a book on the lessons learned for progressive causes resulting from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, said the end of the military’s gay ban represents the end of what he called the “political paranoia” that led to the institution of the law in 1993.
“Just abstracting away from the question of LGBT rights that’s a danger to every American citizen,” Belkin said. “Sept. 20 is about the cultural change for the military and the political change for gay and lesbian troops … but I would say, even more importantly, it’s a moment when truth and fairness trumped paranoia, and that’s just critical.”
Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT research and communications project at the Center for American Progress, said allowing open service will be significant for many Americans.
“‘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.
Observers agree the process that led to the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will have a lasting impact as well.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the training in which service members have been participating will have significant influence on the perspective with which troops — and the American public at large — view gay and lesbian people.
“They really took the time to train and educate the force on the various assets of this policy and hypotheticals,” Nicholson said. “It was an hour of instruction on gays and lesbians, on gay families, on gay partners and it was a really a normalization routine. It was really exposed to millions of America’s most conservative youth to the normality of gays and lesbians.”
Among the situations that the training addressed, Nicholson said, were gay troops holding hands, going on dates or participating in military events with their partners. Nearly 2 million service members received the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” training before certification took place on July 22, according to the Pentagon.
Workplace discrimination against LGBT people could be an issue that gains new focus after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. No federal law exists to protect LGBT workers against discrimination. Firing someone for being gay is legal in 29 states and firing someone for being transgender is legal in 35 states.
Krehely said open service could generate support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination against LGBT workers in most situations in the public and private workforce, or encourage other employers to add protections for LGBT workers.
“The military is probably one of the biggest and most visible workplaces in our country,” Krehely said. “I think Sept. 20 is a clear indication that this discrimination should not be there any longer, and that we need to move forward on ENDA, and educate people about the broader workplace issues that we’re up against.”
Despite the potential for long-term impact, advocates say the change resulting in the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” won’t be immediately apparent and any impact of any lifting the gay ban will be more drawn out.
Krehely said the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” next week won’t mean the “world changes necessarily” on Tuesday.
“I think that it’s just people who want to serve their country will want to do that without living in fear,” Krehely said. “That’s the biggest change. It may not be visible, but it’s really important to those people and it’s really important to the military itself.”
Nicholson predicted Tuesday will be a “non-event” and said many gay service members will choose not to come out even though they won’t be in danger of dismissal now that the military’s gay ban is off the books.
“I think you’ll see a good number of them who decide not to come out,” Nicholson said. “I think the post-repeal military is going to resemble any conservative American workplace where individuals judge their willingness and their comfort level in coming out.”
According to the most recent findings from the Williams Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, an estimated 48,500 lesbians, gay men and bisexuals serve on active duty or in the ready reserve in the U.S. military, while an additional 22,000 are in standby and retired reserve forces. These 70,500 service members make up 2.2 percent of the total force.
But what will happen to those service members who choose to be public about their sexual orientation? Will service members patronize their local gay bars while in uniform? Will Pride parades include contingents of openly gay troops?
Some gay troops have already started brandishing their military credentials during Pride celebrations. In July, about 200 active-duty troops and veterans marched in San Diego’s Pride parade. They weren’t wearing uniforms, but T-shirts indicating their branch of service. The event was the first time a military contingent participated in a Pride celebration in the United States.
Nicholson said that the standards that apply to straight service members with regard to uniforms will also apply to gay troops — so wearing the uniform may not be appropriate in some circumstances.
“Unless it’s some unusual circumstances, service members don’t wear their uniforms out to the bar,” Nicholson said. “I can pretty much guarantee that violations of long-standing and well-understood regulations like that for the sake of publicity is going to be frowned upon by gay troops because the community consensus is they want to blend in like everyone else and not have any special treatment.”
Nonetheless, gay troops will undoubtedly be visible in the post-repeal world. Belkin said the higher visibility of gay troops — and their relationships — following the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will add to the political pressure to advance the fight for same-sex marriage.
“We’re going to see gay and lesbian service members coming back from the Middle East and talking about the importance of marriage equality, and, very tragically, we’re going to see gay and lesbian service members fall in the battlefield and their partners, husbands and wives will not be dealt any benefits their straight counterparts have,” Belkin said. “That is going to illustrate for the public in a much more vivid way the stakes of the marriage debate.”
What’s the next frontier for those who worked to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” Securing benefits for gay and lesbian troops is the next step advocates plan to take after the gay ban is lifted from the books.
The Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, prevents the military from offering benefits to gay troops, such as health care benefits. But other benefits related to housing and legal services could be changed administratively.
Krehely said benefits for gay troops will be among the issues advocacy groups will be pushing for in the post-repeal world.
“I think that there are still some implementation issues that need to be worked out in terms of benefits and housing, and I think that’s something advocacy organizations and research groups are going to keep trying to make some progress on,” Krehely said.