How Obama's Slow Repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Defused the Controversy

Advocates were outraged by the administration's pace, but the president's deliberative approach has prevented a backlash


Releasing news on a summer Friday afternoon is the political equivalent of a cop telling passersby, "move along, nothing to see here." Which is surely why the Pentagon "certified," and Obama signed, the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal on Friday at 3:30 pm -- affirming that the military was prepared to allow lesbians and gay men to serve openly. The certification asserted that policies were in place, and just about everyone in the military was trained in the new approach, ready to yawn if a colleague was spotted at a gay bar or mentioned a same-sex partner.

In 1994, when Congress made "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" a formal policy, putting in statute what the military had had in its regulations since the rabidly anti-gay 1950s, only 44 percent of the country believed lesbians and gay men should serve openly, according to ABC/Washington Post polling. That national number didn't reflect the fact that an all-volunteer military tends to pull in recruits from more conservative regions and families -- and so was less welcoming than the nation at large. But as of December 2010, the national approval rate for open service was 77 percent -- and younger people, even from Southern, evangelical, and conservative households, were pretty thoroughly over their fears.

The repeal law mandated another 60 days for Congressional review, so DADT's big epitaphs will appear closer to September 20. That will be the time to consider not the shift not just in anti-gay but also anti-feminist attitudes behind the policy. Some gay and lesbian advocates considered the 1993 "gays-in-the-military" (said as one word) hearings to be a big dude feelings-fest. We learned that men in Congress feared that gay men would treat non-gay men the way too many straight men treat their female colleagues: as fresh, available meat. But over a decade with two-and-a-half wars, women have moved steadily farther into combat -- and the military still functions. The masculinist bias that suggests that the military is all about a certain ideal of manhood -- one that necessarily includes turning men into predators -- has been forced to fade. (Military sexual assault -- of women, not men -- remains a serious problem, but that's another topic entirely.)

Meanwhile, an anecdote -- which as the social scientists say, can be the singular of "data." Early in the 2000s, I interviewed a young straight woman, a whip-smart lawyer, who was working for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to help repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Back then, a few non-gay folks were just beginning to work in gay organizations, which startled those of us who had come up when putting "gay" on your resume meant stamping a big scarlet "Q" on your forehead, potentially ruling you out of any ordinary job ever again. Who would willingly take that on if she didn't have to?

Presented by

E.J. Graff, a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, is a contributing editor and daily columnist at The American Prospect and the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.

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