It has been almost four years since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Since that historic victory, much in these great United States of America has changed for the benefit of our LGBT movement. But these historic achievements are only a start. We still have a significant amount of work to do to advance equality and fairness for all LGBT people. In particular, inclusion of LGBT individuals in the Military Equality Opportunity Program (MEO) was left on the table in the wake of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
But in light of the work still to do, there is much reason to celebrate this Pride month.
Eight weeks ago, obtaining LGBT equality in the Military Equality Opportunity Program (MEO) was an uncertainty. However, with Brad Carson’s appointment as Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness, OutServe-SLDN recognized the opportunity to re-energize the push for the Department of Defense to include LGBT individuals in the MEO.
After several intense weeks of advocating and lobbying by OutServe-SLDN, the Department of Defense will now send the Military Equality Opportunity Program to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter with sexual orientation included as a protected class. The Military Equal Opportunity identifies classes of service members that should be protected from discrimination, to allow them to rise to highest possible level of responsibility. The policy will head to Secretary Carter’s office likely this week and he is expected to sign the policy by the end of June.
This continues our progress from last year, when the DoD Human Goals Charter was updated to make, “… military service in the Department of Defense a model of equal opportunity for all regardless of race, color, sex, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin.” The Human Goals Charter is still not perfect with the absence of protections for our transgender service members, but it moved the policy ever so slightly in the right direction.
Now, the inclusion of LGBT individuals in the MEO takes us one step further toward making military service a model of equal opportunity. That is why OutServe-SLDN remains focused on and took the necessary action to advocate that DoD and the service branches continue their progress toward ensuring equal protection and opportunity for all of our LGBT service members.
Despite this moment of celebration, our mission is not completed. Sadly, although sexual orientation will be included in the MEO, and despite our best efforts for full inclusion, gender identity will not be included at this time.
Recently, the Washington Blade published an article about transgender equality in the military or lack thereof. In that article I advocated that we must include all LGBT people when we push for changes in law, policy and lobbying. Although we were not successful in adding transgender to the MEO, OutServe-SLDN will always include transgender individuals in all of our efforts because when we separate our community we do a disservice to the advancement of all of our rights. Now, some took criticism to that point but to those detractors I say, by having the conversation about transgender equality as part of our movement’s larger conversation we move the equality line just a little bit further. It will be for us a year from now to obtain transgender equality in the MEO because of the conversations we have had over the last year.
I would further advocate that there is a strong likelihood that open transgender service would be undermined in the absence of non-discrimination protections. We have experienced with the repeal of DADT that discrimination rose because service members were allowed to serve openly but were still not a protected class. Neither I, nor OutServe-SLDN, believes it beneficial to secure open transgender service without having the necessary protections in place. The MEO does not require DoD to have a medical policy, open service policies, etc., to protect transgender individuals from discrimination. Until recently, only the Army had taken steps to slow the process of discharging transgender service members.
Service members have a sworn duty to serve and protect but we, as a nation, have a duty to protect our LGBT service members from discrimination.
Our community is looking at a big celebration in a few weeks both at the Department of Defense and the United States Supreme Court, but I want to remind you that the fight is not over. We deserve full equality. “Equality” can’t allow someone to get married on Sunday, and then be fired by their boss on Monday because they are gay. It is not equality when you deny a person from serving openly because they are transgender. It is not equality when our LGBT service members protect our country, but still face homophobic and transphobic slurs while serving.
Let us celebrate this Pride month as we move equality one step further with sexual orientation in the Military Equality Opportunity Program. Let us celebrate this Pride month as we remain cautiously optimistic that the United States Supreme Court will decide that marriage is a fundamental right for all. But let us also look ahead, let us use our history, our celebration to really galvanize our community for our next battles, our next fights. If we have learned anything from other movements, those who will fight against us will always do so.
Matt Thorn is interim executive director of OutServe-SLDN.