Gay, lesbian, civil rights groups and supporters say the move by Congress Thursday, May 27, toward ending the U.S. military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was a historic step forward.
The House of Representatives voted by a 234-194 margin to repeal the 1993 law that allows gay people to serve in the armed forces as long as they conceal their sexual orientation.
Separately, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a similar measure toward dismantling the law, which critics call discriminatory.
Supporters of ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” hail the two votes as a matter of basic fairness and civil rights.
The move is a big victory for President Barack Obama, who has actively supported ending the policy, and for gay rights groups who made the fight to repeal the law their top legislative policy this year.
In a statement Obama said he was pleased by the House vote and said it was an important bipartisan step toward ending the law.
“This legislation will help make our armed forces even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity,” said the president.
Before the vote and in a floor speech House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, “On Memorial Day, America will come together and honor all who served our nation in uniform. I urge my colleagues to vote for the repeal of this discriminatory policy and make America more American.” By ending this policy, “We honor the values of our nation and we close the door on a fundamental unfairness,” she said.
Critics of “don’t ask, don’t tell” say the law does not serve the best interests of the U.S. military and does little to reflect the best values of the country’s deep democratic traditions. It’s unfair that thousands of service members have been pushed out of the armed forces not because they were inadequate or bad soldiers, sailors, Marines or airmen but because of their sexual orientation, they note. Of the 13,500 who have been discharged under the law more than 1,000 filled critical occupations, such as engineers and interpreters, they add.
The vote was taken after its chief sponsor and Iraq war veteran Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Penn, offered it as an amendment to the House’s version of the defense authorization bill. The provision was adopted and the House is expected to vote on the Pentagon policy on Friday.
Speaking from the House floor Murphy said, “When I served in Baghdad, my team did not care whether a fellow soldier was straight or gay.” He continued, “Could they do their job so that everybody in our unit could come home safely? With our military fighting two wars, why on earth would we tell over 13,500 able-bodied Americans that their services are not needed,” he asked.
The full Senate is expected to take up the defense bill next month, and Republicans are threatening a filibuster if the change in policy toward gays remains in the legislation.
Yet the efforts of a Republican-led filibuster are slim because the move to end the policy shares bipartisan support in Congress including from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen.
According to both the House and Senate measures, a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” would take effect only after the completion of a Pentagon Working Group study due Dec. 1. The nearly year-long review is expected to detail how such a repeal would be implemented and how it would affect service members.
“Lawmakers today stood on the right side of history,” said Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization, in a statement.
“The importance of this vote cannot be overstated – this is the beginning of the end of a shameful ban on open service by lesbian and gay troops that has weakened our national security,” said Solmonese. “The stars and aligning to finally restore honor and integrity to those who serve our country so selflessly.”
However others say they won’t be satisfied until an actual date is set for lifting the current ban and implementing a more transparent new policy.
Speaking to ABC News Lt. Dan Choi, a 29-year-old openly-gay service member whose discharge is pending said, “I don’t agree that we have to accept compromises when there’s complete injustice.”
He adds, “As far as we’re concerned, we have a responsibility to continue asking, when are you going to fully repeal discrimination, when can soldiers finally tell the truth about who they are and who they love, when is integrity going to be restored, and the question when hasn’t been answered yet so no I’m not satisfied.”