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Hillary’s Arkansas HIV history = Nancy Reagan’s silence

A closer look at first lady’s record in early days of epidemic



Hillary Clinton, gay news, Washington Blade
Hillary Clinton, gay news, Washington Blade, Hillary Clinton AIDS

Hillary Clinton recently criticized HIV disclosure laws, but she was silent when her husband signed one. (Photo by Gino Santa Maria; courtesy Bigstock)

It cannot be said that during her nine years as first lady of Arkansas that Hillary Clinton started a local conversation about AIDS — her advocacy had such a low-key volume that no one heard it.

Now that the dust-up over her grossly uninformed statement about Nancy Reagan starting a national discussion about AIDS has subsided, it’s relevant to examine her HIV record, such as it is, from her Little Rock years.

Remarkably, during the 1980s when their husbands held power and the AIDS epidemic created crises at every level of government, as thousands of gay men and others suffered and died, neither first lady left a paper trail of actions or statements addressing the grief, tremendous fear and stigma we lived with.

As a member of the ACT UP/Presidential Project from late 1991 to the November 1992 election, I kept thick files on Gov. Bill Clinton’s campaign and reporting on his HIV record. Nothing in my archive includes any reference to Hillary’s HIV record and online searches fail to locate any relevant source materials.

If she took action or spoke up prior to campaigning against George H. W. Bush, it went unreported or duly noted.

Hillary held no elective office while her husband served as governor but she was no shrinking violet when it came to injecting herself into public policy matters and state government, and fighting for causes she believed in.

In 1977, then-attorney general Bill Clinton endorsed modernization of the state’s homosexual and bestial anti-sodomy statute and as governor made no public comments calling for repeal of the law. Same goes for Hillary. When in 1991 courageous local Democratic politician Vic Snyder, who eventually served as a representative in Congress, attempted to erase the law from the books, neither Clinton offered him support.

Newspaper accounts from 1991 offer details on how police entrapped men cruising for sex at highway rest stops and other locations, and after they were arrested and charged under the sodomy law, their names and home addresses were published for all to read.

Arkansas’s sodomy statue was in effect until the Supreme Court struck down such laws across the land, but while it was on the books it was vigorously used by prosecutors against LGBT persons.

Compounding the stigma and fear of gays and our sexual relations, and the added burden of HIV transmission stemming from outrageous neglect of prevention and education programs, Gov. Clinton in November 1989 signed one of the worst criminal transmission laws in the nation.

The law made it a Class A felony for a poz person to have penetrative sex with another person without first disclosing their HIV status. If convicted, sentences required no less than six years and a maximum of 30 years in prison.

This law is still on the books and an unknown number of persons convicted under it currently are inmates in penitentiaries serving time.

Public records obtained from Arkansas prosecutors by advocates affiliated with Sero, a nonprofit of HIV poz folks and allies fighting stigma and injustice, while limited in scope because several prosecutors refused to release responsive records citing state sunshine law allowing officials to deny access to public records if the requester lives out of state.

The Sero organization is based in Pennsylvania.

Of caseloads made public for about a dozen persons, the average sentence meted out was 10 years and three people got 20 years while only one received six years in prison. I believe these cases represent a mere fraction of all convictions in Arkansas.

After extensive searching, I’ve come across nothing showing Hillary opposed the HIV criminalization law before her husband signed it or after going into effect.

Over the course of their final nine years of holding the reins of power in Little Rock and of widespread HIV and sodomy criminal enforcement, Hillary expended no political capital on us or our concerns.

Just how missing-in-action on AIDS were the Clintons up to September 1990?

An extended editorial at the time in Little Rock’s alternative weekly The Spectrum headlined “Time For An AIDS Policy” completely omits the Clintons, indicating they weren’t known for doing the right thing on HIV matters.

It noted: “The incidence of reported AIDS in Arkansas is up 158 percent over last year … by the end of September, there will be 147 cases on the books as compared to 57 this same time last year. … The Department of Health Services just completely cut Medicaid benefits to 10 of 13 Arkansans who take AZT … The Arkansas Department of Corrections simply failed to reapply for its grants that paid for a full-time AIDS education coordinator … Blacks in Arkansas have an alarmingly disproportionate incidence of AIDS; about 23 percent of AIDS cases are among blacks who make up 16.3 percent of the population.”

With primaries underway, the Clinton for President Committee in early March 1992 issued a one-page position paper on AIDS that is noteworthy because it lacks any compelling achievement on his part directly assisting people with AIDS or those at-risk.

It reads: “As chairman of the National Governor’s Association, he formed the first working group of governors to develop a policy on AIDS … In 1986, under Governor Clinton’s leadership, the Arkansas State Board of Education adoption a resolution calling for the ‘development of AIDS educations skills … to be integrated into the Health Education Course Content Guide’. “

Granted, a panel and a resolution connected to Bill during the first five years of the plague are something, they’re exceedingly underwhelming and pitiful and force me to wonder where was Hillary and did she do a damn thing about HIV in Little Rock?

In her apology after her erroneous Nancy Reagan comment generated pain, Hillary wrote:

“I’ve always tried to do my part in the fight against this disease, and the stigma and pain that accompanies it. At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, when my husband accepted the nomination for president, we marked a break with the past by having two HIV-positive speakers — the first time that ever happened at a national convention.”

Echoes of Bill’s 1992 campaign AIDS position paper — long on platitudes, short on substance. Given how abysmal her HIV Arkansas record is, Hillary’s apology omitting anything she may have done prior to the presidential campaign is quite telling.

A four-page policy assessment paper from the Arkansas Gay and Lesbian Task Force in February 1992 to the Human Rights Campaign about the state’s AIDS legislation and response to the epidemic offers more on the issue.

On top of the bad laws, sodomy arrests and prosecutions and lack of initiative from the Clintons, the task force shed light regarding no state funds appropriated for AIDS: “[O]nly federal money was spent here until 1991 [when three HIV educators for community-based organizations for the entire state were hired] . . . $30,000 in 1992 was money to be used for testing and counseling that the federal government quit sending and it came from the Governor’s Emergency Release Fund.”

Most galling, Hillary said: “We should call on states to reform outdated and stigmatizing HIV criminalization laws.”

If only Bill hadn’t signed Arkansas’s criminalization law she would have one less state to call on to amend, maybe even repeal, these lock-’em-up laws.

What’s needed now, just as we’ve weighed Mrs. Reagan’s HIV resume, is to apply the same degree of accountability to Mrs. Clinton especially during her Little Rock years.

Michael Petrelis is a longtime San Francisco-based blogger focused on AIDS and LGBT issues.

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  1. uhhuhh

    April 5, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Quick summary: “My Google search for online information from 40 years ago didn’t turn up anything positive or negative, so I’m going to characterize her record as ‘abysmal’ because I’m a hack.”

    • JackNasty

      April 5, 2016 at 7:15 pm

      FYI, Michael Petrellis did considerable research on AIDS policy and gay rights in Arkansas in 1992 during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign for part of ACT UP Presidential Project . Anyone reading his research about the Clintons then would not have been surprised by the Clintons betrayal of gay voters in 1993 and 1996 with their support for the ban on travel for people with HIV , Don’t Ask, and DOMA.

      Disagree with Michael Petrellis analysis and conclusions about Hillary Clinton, if you like, but you cannot fault the depth of his research unless you want to look foolish.

      • uhhuhh

        April 5, 2016 at 9:56 pm

        Actually, the person who looks foolish is the one who characterizes Hillary Clinton’s record as “abysmal” based on the following: “Nothing in my archive includes any reference to Hillary’s HIV record and online searches fail to locate any relevant source materials.”

        Absence of evidence doesn’t even establish that she was silent, let alone that she had an “absymal” record.

        Hack piece.

        • JackNasty

          April 5, 2016 at 10:44 pm

          With the Clintons, it always depends on what the meaning of the word is is.

          The lack any record of Hillary speaking out for relief for AIDS in the 1980a and early 1990s is indeed evidence she said and did nothing. Petrellis was there. People who spoke out were few and far between. They were noticed because of their courage. No public official spoke in public about AIDS without being noticed for it.

          • Rick Rosendall

            April 6, 2016 at 8:41 am

            The present election campaign amounts to a war for the future of this country. We can lose it to the intolerant, nihilistic right if we spend our time re-fighting old battles. There are no perfect choices, but Hillary is best suited to win and to work effectively as president. The Kochs and others on the right want Bernie to get the nomination because they know he would be easier to beat.

          • JackNasty

            April 6, 2016 at 9:32 am

            So the Koch brothers are responsible for Bernie being able to connect with voters?

            Rick, I didn’t know you had a tinfoil hat.

          • JackNasty

            April 6, 2016 at 9:58 am

            I agree, this campaign is about the future of our country. The Clintons history of chronic lying, supporting wars, deregulating banks, supporting trade agreements that export jobs, and jumping onto the anti-gay bandwagon, gives us a fair idea of what to expect from them in the future.

          • Rick Rosendall

            April 6, 2016 at 10:34 am

            That is not an honest summary of the Clintons’ history, but propaganda to justify your prior conclusion. If you want to convince me, insist on giving her credit for the good she has done, and explain why the negatives outweigh the positives. You don’t even try.

          • Brian's Ions

            April 6, 2016 at 3:03 pm

            Can’t wait for summer— when Dems kiss and make up… and focus on greater dangers.

          • BruceMajors4DC

            April 10, 2016 at 8:33 am

            And a riot at the convention.

          • Rick Rosendall

            April 6, 2016 at 10:31 am

            This is what passes for serious argument in some quarters: I make one statement, and you tendentiously extrapolate from it something I did not say. Of course Bernie has tapped into voter frustration. But that is not a plan. For months he has been saying we need to break up the big banks, yet he doesn’t know how he would do it.

          • BruceMajors4DC

            April 11, 2016 at 7:57 am

            This is actually a rare Blade op ed worth reading. Most are sadly boring regurgitated Democrat press releases. It’s affirmative action for retarded gays.

          • BruceMajors4DC

            April 10, 2016 at 8:32 am

            The Koch brothers were for gay marriage a decade before the Clintons.

        • MPetrelis

          April 7, 2016 at 4:17 pm

          Please share with me articles and such showing Hillary was against the sodomy and HIV laws in Arkansas or that she initiated a local discussion on our issues as First Lady of the state?

      • uhhuhh

        April 5, 2016 at 10:01 pm

        As for DADT and DOMA, do you have a link to a picture of the magic wand that Bill Clinton refused to wave and make veto-proof congressional majorities disappear?

        Oh, never mind. Far-left activists also think Bernie Sanders can snap his fingers and conjure up a magic unicorn for everyone, so there’s clearly a reality gap.

        • JackNasty

          April 5, 2016 at 10:35 pm

          A president can vigorously oppose legislation. He can also allow to become law without his signature. The Clintons endorsed the ban on travel for people with HIV, Don’t Ask, and DOMA.

          The only thing the Clintons have ever fought for is their own access to power. They really did put up a good fight during the impeachment.

          • BruceMajors4DC

            April 10, 2016 at 6:46 am

            They are two hundred million dollars richer now, with multi-million dollar estates in DC and NY, and married Chelsea off to a hedge fund millionaire. So the motive is obvious.

        • BruceMajors4DC

          April 10, 2016 at 7:05 am

          Obama seems to have raised debt limits and signed omnibus spending bills even when Republicans controlled both House and Senate. I guess the Clintons aren’t competent at being executives. Maybe that’s why State Department employees get murdered on Hillary’s watch and then she forgets it happened when she makes a speech.

          • Rick Rosendall

            April 10, 2016 at 7:47 am

            Never mind the 13 embassy attacks during GBW’s presidency.

          • BruceMajors4DC

            April 10, 2016 at 8:30 am

            “Eve did it too” is the oldest moral fallacy. Don’t know that Bush lied to dead soldiers’ mom’s. Maybe he isn’t as sociopathic.

      • MPetrelis

        April 7, 2016 at 4:16 pm

        Much appreciate your comment, JackNasty. Here’s hoping Hillary fans inform us any steps she took against the Arkansas queer-specific sodomy law or the HIV criminalization statute. Did she do or say anything prior to 1992 on our issues in Little Rock?

    • MPetrelis

      April 7, 2016 at 4:14 pm

      Happy to read any info you have online regarding Hillary’s HIV and gay record from her years in Little Rock. It may be out there and not turning up in Google searches.

    • BruceMajors4DC

      April 10, 2016 at 6:41 am

      As a rather unthinking off the shelf Democrat Hillary Clinton couldn’t offer a solution to the AIDS crisis since the main solution was to eliminate FDA regulations that prevent new drugs and treatments from coming to market quickly, and the regulatory state is the proudest achievement of Democrats. Without the regulatory state, the Clinton Foundation couldn’t get bribes for selling regulatory waivers or punitive new regulations aimed at the donors’ competitors .

      • Rick Rosendall

        April 10, 2016 at 7:51 am

        If you’ve decided at the outset that you will do nothing but heap scorn on someone, you can cherry pick and tendentiously interpret as you like. I suppose it’s as good a pastime as playing bridge or watching baseball.

        • BruceMajors4DC

          April 10, 2016 at 8:45 am

          I just want her in prison where the world will be safer and she can have all she can eat.

          • Rick Rosendall

            April 10, 2016 at 2:25 pm

            Your evident serene conviction regarding her criminality is based on a mashup from 25 years of Republican slanders. Given how the Gowdy committee embarrassed itself over 11 hours a few months back in trying to wound her, your wishes are unlikely to be fulfilled.

          • BruceMajors4DC

            April 11, 2016 at 7:54 am

            It’s clear she is a criminal minimally criminal negligence, as well as a life long fabricator and grifter. That incompetent Republicans allow your crony party to remain in power doesn’t make your party any less criminal.

  2. Rick Rosendall

    April 5, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    Mikey, considering that I saw you proudly wearing an “Impeach Clinton” button on Election Night in 1992, I do not consider you amenable to reason on the Clintons. In any case, Hillary is running for her own first term, not Bill’s third. She has been a two-term senator and Secretary of State since then. Regarding Nancy Reagan, I am happy to be an officer of the group (Mattachine) that brought to light the evidence of her refusal to help Rock Hudson when he was in extremis 31 years ago; but I cannot get exercised over Hillary having been overgenerous to a dead lady at a funeral. And let’s not get into a macabre competition over who has a longer list of dead friends who were stolen from us by that disease. As Tony Kushner said, the world only spins forward. We have new challenges and threats to face. Among other things, Hillary launched a global LGBT initiative as Sec. of State. That is being built on, including by our openly gay ambassador to the Dominican Republic, notwithstanding the crude bigotry being hurled at him by the Catholic cardinal there. It’s always something. If it’s any comfort, I don’t think you’re a hack. Sometimes you are a zealot. But you have done much useful work.

    • Brian's Ions

      April 5, 2016 at 8:58 pm

      So, Rick, do you have a link for more on that bit of history? I take it that was after the famous RR/WH-to-Rock phone call? Any mythology to bust about that?
      Regarding Nancy Reagan, I am happy to be an officer of the group (Mattachine) that brought to light the evidence of her refusal to help Rock Hudson when he was in extremis 31 years ago…**

    • MPetrelis

      April 7, 2016 at 4:13 pm

      I appreciate your comments, Rick. My primary objective here is to get folks to look at Hillary’s silence on gay and HIV issues during her time as First Lady of Arkansas.

    • BruceMajors4DC

      April 10, 2016 at 6:56 am

      So Petrelis has been a critic of Clinton crimes – selling access to government (beginning with First Lady of Arkansas Hillary being paid to sit on the WalMart board), abusing women and then intimidating them into silence, having Sandy Berger hide classified documents before the technology existed to delete them from private servers – since 1992. Unlike all the climbers in DC who hope to get a Hillary job or be invited to a Hillary party if they ho the line.

      • Rick Rosendall

        April 10, 2016 at 7:45 am

        Hey Mikey, lovely company you’re keeping! Bruce, it must get lonely being the only person in D.C. not blinded by personal ambition.

        • BruceMajors4DC

          April 10, 2016 at 8:28 am

          They are a minority. West of the Anacostia river. Most DC people are cashing a check to soldier on for their chosen Fuehrer. That’s why so much of the rest of the country, in both establishment parties, wants your heads on sticks.

  3. MPetrelis

    April 7, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    One cannot deny that her recent apology and explanation after her Nancy Reagan remarks starts with her stating her views form 1992 onward. What, if anything, did she do to help LGBT people and HIV poz folks in Little Rock?

    • BruceMajors4DC

      April 10, 2016 at 6:52 am

      Bernie fans may want to research another piece of Hillary 80s history. People who were there say Hillary was the tie breaking vote on the WalMart board to end WalMart’s policy to buy American and to shift to Chinese imports.

  4. LesbianTippingHabits

    April 12, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    Hillary is also not a generous tipper.

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Blogging my first overseas vacation since COVID

Chronicling life aboard Celebrity APEX



I will be blogging a number of times during my two-week transatlantic cruise and sharing my thoughts and experiences. 

The first thing I found is boarding during a pandemic is a little different. People were given specific boarding times yet most arrived at the port when it was convenient for them as many had early check-out times from their hotel or Airbnb in Barcelona. Celebrity didn’t turn anyone away. There was no Wi-fi at the entrance to the terminal so things got a little complicated as many had the information needed on their iPhone Celebrity app. It worked out and when you got inside to the counter they shared a Wi-fi connection. 

I knew in advance from a Facebook connection, some childhood friends whom I hadn’t seen in 21 years were going to be onboard. We ended up arriving at the terminal at the same time and caught up for the next hour and a half as we progressed through the boarding process. We all had to take a Covid test and only those with negative results could board. Of the approximately 1,300 people boarding, less than half the possible number for a full ship, I didn’t hear of anyone getting a positive result. 

When my negative result came back I was allowed to board and went to find my stateroom on deck 11. The key was at the door with all my information on it. Celebrity was doing everything to limit crew-to-passenger contact. We were asked to keep masks on in all indoor spaces except when eating or drinking, which on a cruise is often, and the crew are all wearing masks. Luggage was delivered to the door. 

Shortly after entering my beautiful stateroom there was a knock at the door and my stateroom attendant, Lenie, had come to introduce herself. She didn’t come in but explained how I could reach her anytime and for safety she would only come into the room when I was out. We chatted for a few minutes and I found out she was from the Philippines, had three children, and had worked for Celebrity for 20 years. She was both charming and efficient. 

I then took a walk around the ship and was duly impressed. It is beautiful. I walked through the huge buffet where people were happily eating lunch and saw instead of serving yourself there were servers behind each station filling people’s plates. All passengers had on their masks when getting food, as did the crew serving them. It made for a very safe feeling. 

Instead of a group muster each passenger was asked to go to their assigned muster station where you were met by staff who explained emergency procedures. You also had to look at a video on the Celebrity app and were then logged in and confirmed you had done so. All efficiently and safely done. 

Then I headed to the sail-away party my travel agent, and friends, Scott Moster and his husband Dustin, were hosting in the Iconic suite. The suite has everything from a peloton cycle to a hot tub for eight. It is incredible. I had the chance to catch up with old friends I had sailed with before the pandemic. Then it was a quick tour of the spa and gym open twenty-four hours a day. A way to assuage guilt over all the food and drink. Then back to the stateroom to finish unpacking and change for dinner with good friends in one of the specialty restaurants, EDEN. That meant long pants and a shirt with a collar. That’s as formal as required on this cruise. 

The food was superb and we got to meet the chef, Nicholas. An interesting guy who I will interview during the cruise. The menu was a combination of fresh fish, lobster, to filet mignon, all interestingly prepared. 

After dinner it was a stop at the Martini bar where a large group of LGBTQ friends had gathered along with some who would become friends. I was surprised when a guy came over and gave me a hug. I didn’t recognize him with his mask on but turned out he was another friend from my past I hadn’t seen in years. It is clearly a small world and the gay world seems even smaller. 

Finally headed to my stateroom around midnight, where turndown service had been done, to get some sleep and prepare for day two, and our first stop, Alicante.  

Day two and three on the Celebrity APEX

Time flies when on a cruise; maybe it’s the endless food and drink. All passengers received a letter in their room telling us we would need to report for a Covid test on day 5 the first at-sea day before we get to the Canary Islands. I pre-scheduled mine just before what I planned as my first hour at the gym. I expect to go to the gym on all sea days and there will be eight of those.

Each morning I have had coffee, a bagel and orange juice delivered to the stateroom.  I always miss that knock on the door each morning when I am home but then I would miss my daily coffee at Java House so I guess it’s OK. 

On day two we stopped at our first port, Alicante, on Spain’s Costa Blanca. I was truly surprised at how beautiful the city is. I joined friends for what turned out to be a three and a half hour walk as we were allowed off the ship on our own without booking a tour. We visited churches and the main market in town. We strolled along the beach and the harbor with great walking and bicycle paths. Alicante is a wonderful mix of old-world charm and modern amenities. One friend ventured up to the castle, Castillo de Santa Barbara, but since the elevator (the easy way up) wasn’t working and it’s a very long, steep climb up the mountain I passed. We arrived back at the ship around 1 p.m. and headed to the Mast bar on deck 14 for burgers and fries. Then some time back in the stateroom before heading to the martini bar for a drink and then to the beautiful APEX theater to see the Shamrock Tenors, four Irish performers who are not only talented but cute to boot. 

We decided to try one of the regular restaurants, those not needing reservations and chose Normandy. The food was good and I had shrimp cocktail, rigatoni, and cherries jubilee for dessert. 

After dinner it was up to the Rooftop Garden for ‘Silent Disco’. That is where you get a set of headphones with a few channels of disco music, and you dance to the music only you can hear. It’s really fun but by 11:30 my knees gave out and it was off to bed. 

Day three dawned nice and sunny and we were docked in Cartagena, located in the autonomous of the region of Murcia. I had an 8:45 excursion and again had breakfast delivered to the room. We were instructed to head to the theater to meet the tour group and sign in for our ‘Journey to Murcia’. Murcia is a city in south-eastern Spain, the capital and most populous city of the Autonomous Community of the Region of Murcia, and the seventh largest city in the country, with a population of 447,182. It is about a forty-minute drive from the port. It is a fascinating city with an incredible history from the Romans to and Moorish influence. There is a beautiful cathedral, isn’t there one in every Spanish city? This being a national holiday in Spain most of the shops were closed saving some on the tour a lot of money. We strolled around the city with our guide giving us a running commentary on its history for about an hour and a half. She was a little hard to understand because not only did she have a heavy accent but she spoke really fast. But it was still fun and we did learn a lot. We made a second stop outside the city at another church where a wedding was being officiated. The bride was beautiful. Then we headed back to the ship for an early departure. Our tour was the last onboard and we sailed not more than thirty minutes after we got there. 

Then it was off to the captain’s reception. I had the chance to chat a few moments with the Captain Panagiotis Skylogiannis, who is as charming as are most Greek men. We also met the rest of the senior crew who run the ship. Many said they would be more than happy to sit and get a cup of coffee with me during our at-sea days so I can interview and write about them.

Then it was back to my stateroom again to prepare for another tough night of food and drinking. We went to see Andrew Derbyshire in the theater for the 7:30 show and then to dinner at Cyprus.   After dinner Celebrity hosted the first LGBTQ+ event of the cruise at the EDEN bar. A large crowd showed up, not all gay but they all knew where the fun people would be. The entertainers all showed up there as including the Shamrock Tenors, four talented Irish guys and Andrew Derbyshire, a British actor and singer. We chatted and I will meet him for coffee to do a column on him. 

Then about midnight it was back to the stateroom for what some of my friends on board called an early night. Morning would have us docking in Cadiz and we had a private tour planned for over 20 of the people who had booked the trip with Scott Moster, travel agent extraordinaire, taking us to the city of Seville.  

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ clouds Powell’s legacy

A final act of redemption



Former Secretary of State Colin Powell (Photo by Susan Montgomery via Bigstock)

The legacy of General Colin Powell is complicated for those in the LGBTQ community. On the one hand, we celebrate that Powell was the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State. On the other, he is also the person who disobeyed the strategic choice of his Commander in Chief, Bill Clinton, on gays in the military. 

Powell stood on the steps of the Pentagon reporting how many calls had been received opposing lifting the ban. He testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the service of openly gay troops would harm unit cohesion. He argued that race was a “benign characteristic” and being gay was not. Congress codified into statute what had been a regulatory ban on gays in the military, making the law that much harder to change. Almost 14,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual service members were dismissed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a rate of two-four service members every day. Some were subjects of witch hunts. Others faced criminal charges. Many endured harassment, assault and threats. Private First Class Barry Winchell was murdered.

Michelle Benecke and I knew when we founded Servicemembers Legal Defense Network that for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to be repealed, we would have to either win the support or neutralize the opposition of Powell, one of the previously undisclosed strategies described in my new book, “Mission Possible.” Michelle and I first met him at the Arlington, Va., headquarters of America’s Promise. We offered to brief him on the ban’s implementation as he was being asked on the Sunday shows about the law’s efficacy. He agreed to see us.

The question was whether we could find common ground on which to build a new consensus. My theory was that Powell genuinely believed that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a better policy than the one before it. After all, he had testified before the Senate, “We will not ask, we will not witch-hunt, we will not seek to learn orientation.” 

“General Powell,” I said, “we have received nearly a thousand calls from service members who have been impacted by ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ We have documented that most are being asked point blank about their sexual orientation in contravention of ‘Don’t Ask.’” 

“That’s not supposed to happen,” he said.

That was our first conversation. We might have been able to better enforce some of the meager gains under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” if we had been able to prevail upon Powell to help us, but he wasn’t ready. 

In 2003, he told Teen Ink magazine that while discrimination is wrong, “I think it’s a different matter with respect to the military, because you’re essentially told who you’re going to live with, who you’re going to sleep next to.”

Four years later, he called me, prompted by an opinion essay in The New York Times that I had sent him. “Second Thoughts on Gays in the Military”—written by retired Army General John Shalikashvili, Powell’s successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs—called for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Powell and I spoke for 45 minutes. “I agree with General Shalikashvili that America has changed and is ready for gays to serve openly,” he said. My heart leapt. “I am not convinced, however, that military commanders are ready for that change.” My heart sunk.

It was clear to me, though, that he was moving in the right direction.  I put it on the line. “Sir, you will be a critical voice on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ when it comes up for debate again. I need you to support repeal if we are going to win. Do you know that?”

“Yes,” he said.

Finally, on Feb. 5, 2010, 10 months before final repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and days after Admiral Mike Mullen had testified before the Senate that he supported repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Powell released a statement. “If the chiefs and commanders are comfortable with moving to change the policy, then I support it. Attitudes and circumstances have changed. Society is reflected in the military. It’s where we get our soldiers from.” The stage was set for final repeal.

We too often look for heroes and villains when the record can be complicated. Powell deserves opprobrium for defying Clinton, rallying opposition, and allowing 60,000 troops under his command to suffer the indignity of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He deserves credit, though, for changing his mind. I admired his willingness to speak with me over nearly two decades. I find that the best leaders engage in a lifelong process of learning and challenging assumptions. Powell will receive deserved accolades for his service to our nation, but for us, his legacy includes a profound betrayal with a final act of redemption.

C. Dixon Osburn is author of ‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’’

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‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal serves as a guide for enacting equality legislation

Equality Act supporters should take cues from Senate moderates



Equality legislation is close to passing in Congress, but close isn’t good enough. “Close” won’t change anything for the LGBTQ Americans who face discrimination every day. Senate Democrats and Republicans must make a push to negotiate. With a reach on both sides to find common ground, we can move equality legislation from “close” to “done deal.”

Some Democrats are waiting for the filibuster to end—despite clear evidence that they lack the votes to end it. Some Republicans are practicing a tried-and-true brand of obstructionism. To break this deadlock, we should look to the successful, bipartisan repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) as a guide.

The DADT repeal is the single reference point for LGBTQ advocates for overcoming the Senate filibuster. Other victories have been in the courts; notably, the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision that made gay marriage legal nationwide.

Before Obergefell, advocates had success in the state legislatures. I worked on campaigns for the freedom to marry in Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and elsewhere, finding common ground between Democrats and Republicans who thought it was impossible to negotiate on marriage. Eventually, enough people from both parties came together to pass marriage laws in a majority of states.

Working together at the state level is one thing. Congress is another.

Despite Democrats’ control of the White House, Senate and House, negotiations are failing at the federal level. So, we lets look to ancient history—the 2010 repeal of DADT—for guidance on reaching 60 votes in the Senate.

The most important lesson from the DADT repeal is that Senate moderates must champion the cause and lead negotiations. The more partisan figures on both sides need to step back. Overcoming the filibuster is a job for moderates, not ideologues.

As it happens, the hero of the DADT repeal is still a senator and can help. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine led the negotiations on DADT repeal.

Senator Collins supports the Equality Act in principle and even sponsored a version of the bill in past. However, the current version is too extreme for Sen. Collins, as a result, she has withdrawn as a co-sponsor. The current bill has also foundered with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, another important figure in the repeal of DADT.

The fact that moderate, pro-LGBTQ senators are unable to back the current version of the Equality Act should send a clear message to Democrats that we need to make reasonable changes to the bill. So far, the message is being ignored.

On the Democratic side, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman was essential to the repeal of DADT. There certainly were passionate, liberal Democrats who could have asserted themselves during the debate. But then, the bill would have taken longer to pass, or even might have failed.

The lesson is clear. Listen to the moderates. Let them lead this charge.

Another important lesson from the repeal of DADT is to be flexible in the legislative strategy. DADT repeal was originally an amendment to a large defense authorization bill. Rather than give up, Collins and Lieberman fought and saved DADT repeal from defeat by pulling out key provisions they knew could pass on their own and making them a standalone measure. Repeal passed with bipartisan support.

The current version of the Equality Act tries to do too much. That’s why it can’t win support from moderate Republicans who have legitimate concerns the bill might suppress free speech or shut down religious charities.  

Over 60 senators can agree on the basic premise of the Equality Act. They would gladly vote to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ Americans in employment, housing, and public accommodations, so long as the law didn’t intrude on the First Amendment.

If the far left believes that our country has too much religious liberty, they can deal with that in future legislation. But so long as we have a filibuster—and, there’s no indication it will end any time soon—the Equality Act needs to reflect our society’s current views on religious liberty.  

The DADT repeal passed with 65 votes in the Senate, overcoming the filibuster. Let’s replicate that victory by using the same playbook. Moderates: Take the lead.

Tyler Deaton is the senior advisor to the American Unity Fund, a conservative nonprofit organization working to advance LGBTQ freedom and religious freedom

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