By Jarrod Chlapowski
Jarrod Chlapowski is an Army veteran, activist and field director at Servicemembers United, the nation’s largest organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans and their supporters. He has been a key figure in the movement to repeal DADT since 2005.
In a late development Thursday night, The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon says it will comply with a court order to stop enforcing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” even though the Obama administration is seeking a stay of the ruling. The Post writes: “Despite the Pentagon’s announcement, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, a group that supports ending the ban, has encouraged gay military members not to disclose their sexual orientation. ‘It is clear there is confusion, and this interim period is dangerous for service members,’ Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said in a statement. ‘Our service members need finality.’ ”
Almost a month has passed since that devastating moment in September.
So many hurdles had been overcome in 2010, each one met after we nibbled our fingernails down to their nubs: expanding the list of co-sponsors on the proposed Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA) to 200. Earning a mention in the State of the Union address. Witnessing both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense testify in support of repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT). Placing an MREA equivalent in the Senate. Scheduling the first Senate hearings on DADT in 17 years. Voting on DADT repeal in the House. Passing a vote on DADT repeal in the House. Pushing out of the Senate Armed Services Committee a modified MREA attached to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2011.
The only set of hurdles that remained involved the introduction of NDAA on the floor and subsequent votes on modifications to the bill. All we needed was for Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, to schedule the bill for a vote on the Senate floor. This was in May.
Then June came and went, as did July. Immediately before Congress’ August recess, a push was made to schedule the bill for a September vote, which failed. Midterm election predictions became more and more dire for the Democrats as election season really took off during August. By the time the Senate returned for its September meeting days, the fate of NDAA was still unknown.
With the possibility of an uncertain lame-duck vote looming in December, Reid was pressured to put the bill up for a vote before it was too late.
Reid set the vote, but because of the short time before Congress members were to return home to campaign he chose to use a procedure that limited amendments to the bill. This effectively alienated the entire Republican Party.
When we discovered this was the intended procedure, we knew we would not be able to achieve cloture, and would probably lose a few wavering Democrats as well. On Sept. 20, with the White House notably absent from the process, the vote came out exactly as we expected. We lost.
The day before the vote, many of our active-duty members were beginning to allow themselves to feel optimistic, and some were, for the first time, considering re-enlisting in the military. “How soon do you think this will go into effect?” I was asked by a friend, who continued, “Because my re-enlistment window just opened up, and I have a pretty sweet deal if I make a decision in the next week or so.”
“Wait until tomorrow before you make your decision, man,” I responded. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we had very little chance of winning the vote the next day. He is not re-enlisting.
With all the momentum we had worked so hard to build up over the past year, it’s hard to believe we’re at the point we’re at now. Many have thrown in the towel on DADT and have chosen instead to direct their resources to other needs of 2010—pet bills or midterm campaign plans that had been in the works for months with the expectation that DADT would be out of Congress’ hands by now.
The White House has been vague about pushing for a lame-duck vote, and, though we’ve been promised one last try at legislative repeal after the elections, it’s very difficult to predict congressional scheduling in lame-duck sessions. Though we at Servicemembers United continue to push for a lame-duck vote, we are also looking at the prospect of pushing next year as a contingency plan. This is not a place we expected to be even two months ago.
It should not be surprising to the administration that its LGBT supporters are not motivated to vote Democrat this year. Repealing DADT should have been easy—we had surpassed most of the significant hurdles by May and, according to polling, we had the support of 78 percent of the population. To fumble such an easy play does not instill confidence in the base, particularly since the prospects of any LGBT bill passing Congress during the next two or so years look very, very dim.
Even so, a gift was handed to the Democrats by Judge Virginia Phillips in California, who announced Tuesday an immediate injunction against implementing DADT on both fresh and pending cases. She gave the Democrats an easy way out of this mess. All the administration had to do was ask the Department of Justice to not file a stay on the injunction and not appeal the case. This would have been unusual, to be sure, but not unprecedented. Such an option would have been preferable by far to the alternatives on repealing DADT, and could have mobilized a significant portion of the base going into the midterm elections.
However, on Thursday the Department of Justice filed for a stay on the injunctions to be placed by the Ninth Circuit and formally appealed the ruling. But at least we got a motivating tweet, from President Barack Obama himself: “Anybody who wants to serve in our armed forces and make sacrifices on our behalf should be able to. DADT will end & it will end on my watch.”
Somehow I think my friend who had hoped to re-enlist will find that tweet lacking.
AP / Manuel Balce Ceneta
President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, left, meets with military leaders in 2009.