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

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

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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?

When I asked her, she told me that she was a former military unit commander. Under her command, someone had accidentally stumbled upon two young men going at it. Talking with the two, she recognized that neither had been sure he was gay until well after boot camp. They were just being teenage boys, high-spirited, letting off steam in a military theater, not even completely conscious that they were gay. She was appalled by the injustice of what came next. No matter how she tried to protect them, once the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" machinery started to grind, there was nothing she could do: her hard-working, well-liked boys were needlessly discharged. She was so outraged that she and her husband, both on track to be career military officers, declined to re-enlist. She saw a policy that shocked her conscience, spoiled two young men's lives and disrupted a unit for no good reason. And so she went to work to end it.

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), the military has discharged more than 14,000 lesbian and gay servicemembers over the course DADT's existence. A disproportionate number of those were women, investigated for lesbianism when they rejected (or reported) a superior's unwanted advances: Defense Department numbers showed that "women accounted for 34 percent of the discharges but were 14 percent of the military" in 2008, according to USA Today. But who knows how many more -- gay or non-gay -- left in disgust or declined to enlist because of it?

Obama's -- and Congress's -- repeal of DADT has been long, slow, and deliberate, which has had many advocates in a rage. I've admired it. President Bill Clinton tried to change what was essentially the same policy, with a stroke of a pen, as his first serious act in office -- and the backlash both destroyed much of his authority and codified the approach he wanted to repeal. Had Obama tried it to repeal DADT out of the gate, I suspect he would have had a much harder time doing anything else. But the incremental, uber-reasonable, practical approach -- the signature style that has been so criticized by progressives -- has been an extremely effective way to make this particular change within the largest employer in the country. Even Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN's executive director, told the New York Times that "at the end of the day I think it will result in more buy-in and stability and certainty." Despite ongoing indefensible discharges and skirmishes in the courts, the fact that DADT would disappear has been clear since Congress passed its repeal last December. And so a policy that tortured so many for so long falls away like an old scab, while most of us are looking the other way.

Image credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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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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