There was far more opposition within the British military to allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly than there now is within the U.S. armed forces, yet still only three people left the British military. When “don’t ask, don’t tell” is repealed in the U.S., Aaron Belkin contends the blowback will be miniscule to nonexistent. Here, gay, lesbian, and transgender members of the British Royal Navy march in the 2007 London Gay Pride parade.
Doing Away with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
How UCSB’s Palm Center Is Winning the War Against Gay Discrimination in the Military
Thursday, July 15, 2010
It’s only a matter of time before the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy governing gays in the military is buried once and for all. When that day comes, Aaron Belkin’s fingerprints will be all over the shovel.
For the past 12 years, the political science professor has run the Palm Center at UCSB, a small think tank of scholars and lawyers focused on the fate of sexual minorities within the military. The situation, they soon found, was cruelly absurd and gratuitously self-defeating. At the same time the United States was waging two full-blown wars across the globe, the military was kicking out nearly 14,000 servicemen and -women for violating the dangerously nebulous terms of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” including more than 50 skilled translators — many fluent in Arabic — who had not securely locked themselves in the closet. In some cases, mere possession of a k.d. lang album or a Dinah Shore Golf Classic poster was sufficient cause to launch internal investigations. Meanwhile, the American military — strapped for qualified personnel and forced to relax admission qualifications — allowed more than 4,000 convicted felons to enlist.
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy first arose in 1993 as a compromise between the Clinton White House and Republican leaders, the Christian Coalition, and key Southern Democrats, who were threatening a total ban on gays in the military. Back then, such high-profile players as General Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn argued that allowing out-of-the-closet homosexuals in the military would prove detrimental to the “unit cohesion” required by military discipline.
Aaron Belkin, of UCSB’s Palm Center
Over time, both Powell and Nunn would come to disavow that argument, but they didn’t have much of a choice. The research unearthed by Belkin and other scholars with the Palm Center exposed that there was no factual basis for the “unit cohesion” argument. More damningly, they found there never had been. If anything, they found that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was far more corrosive on military morale due to the capricious persecution that ensued. Even more startling, the Palm Center also revealed that 25 other modern militaries had allowed openly gay men and women to serve without suffering any loss of morale or cohesion.
As think tanks go, the Palm Center consistently punches way above its weight. Although steadily gaining credibility with the nation’s military brass over the years, the center’s most dramatically effective relationships are with news outlets and D.C. politicians. Belkin and his former Palm Center colleague Nathaniel Frank have been interviewed so many times by National Public Radio that listeners could be excused for thinking they work there. Likewise, they’ve made themselves abundantly available to members of Congress and, more importantly, to key legislative staffers. And while their point of view has always been evident, their stock-in-trade is the quality of their scholarship.
By Paul Wellman (file)
Earlier, Belkin described Barack Obama’s leadership on gay rights as “anemic.” Now, he praises the president for making repeal happen.
To the extent Belkin can savor the imminent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he’s quick to credit the interventions of President Barack Obama, who vowed to end the policy in this year’s State of the Union speech. Ironically, lawyers working for Obama’s Justice Department will be opposing a constitutional challenge to “don’t ask, don’t tell” taking place this week in federal court in Riverside, California. That challenge was filed by the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay members of the GOP on whose behalf Belkin will testify as an expert witness. The Justice Department is not expected to rebut Belkin or other experts called by the Log Cabin Republicans. Instead, its attorneys will argue that members of Congress, however misguided, had a rational basis to believe the policy would further the objectives of military morale at the time they voted.
While Belkin was barred from discussing specifics of that case, he was willing to share some of his thoughts on “don’t ask, don’t tell” last week in a telephone interview.
A whole lot has happened this past year with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Where are we now and what’s next? We are probably going to win, which means that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is going to be repealed and gays will probably be allowed to serve openly. The main hurdle to an inclusive policy was getting legislation through the Senate. And the White House, along with Senator [Carl] Levin and Senator [Joe] Lieberman, figured out an ingenious strategy to move forward … They were able to attach an amendment to a must-pass bill, the budget bill. It’s going to be impossible for the Republicans to strip the amendment from the bill because they need 60 votes. The bill is going to pass. The House of Representatives passed the amendment with the exact same language, so the amendment will become law. The amendment says that the Pentagon is studying “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and that once that study is done and the president, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the secretary of defense have certified that repeal will not harm the military, then “don’t ask, don’t tell” will be repealed.
I heard Senator John McCain was threatening to filibuster. He said a few years ago that the moment military leadership said they wanted a repeal to happen, then he would favor a repeal. Well, sure enough, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs a few months ago said that gays should be allowed to serve openly, and McCain did a flip-flop. He’s on a sinking ship. It’s not credible that he’s going to filibuster the budget bill unless he somehow wants the troops to not get paid. He’s facing a challenge from a Republican more extreme than he is, so he’s trying to pump up his homophobic credentials to appeal to his base.
The Pentagon recently sent a survey to 400,000 troops about changing the policy, but many in the gay community are urging gay troops not to answer because they might risk their careers. We are not legal experts. We say there is minimal risk for participation, but it’s not a case of zero risk. We leave it for the servicemember to decide.
Why has the Palm Center criticized parts of the survey? The questions being asked are deeply problematic, if not offensive. Can you imagine asking servicemembers about any other identity group, like “How would your spouse feel about being housed on base next to a Chinese family?” or “Would you take orders from a Catholic officer?” “Would you share a tent with a Jewish soldier?” The point is there are some questions you poll the troops about, and some you don’t. We don’t poll the troops about whether they want to go to war. The reason why we don’t poll the troops about “Would you share a tent with a Jewish soldier?” is because asking that question constitutes the minority group as second-class citizens.
The other problem with the study is that it’s premised on a false pretense. [Military leaders] have said, “We don’t have any objective research about how we should manage a repeal process and, therefore, we need to spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars and a year studying the issue.” That is flat wrong. There is actually a mountain of evidence. You want to snap your fingers and do it all at once. You do not want to spend a year. That’s what’s best for the military. But that’s not where we are at politically, hence the study.
The Palm Center and you have taken intense heat from gay activists for being too willing to compromise. The compromise is half a loaf, and there are many people in the gay community who want the full loaf, and who have said some not-so-nice things about me and the Palm Center because of our arguments about the benefits of taking half a loaf. We stand very much behind what we said. We don’t think it is politically possible to get full repeal at this time. We’ve taken that heat, yes.
When you talk about the compromise, what specifically are you talking about? The compromise includes two important elements. One is that repeal will not happen now, but only after the president and military leadership certify that they are ready for repeal. No one really has much of a problem with that.
The piece of the compromise people have a problem with is that the amendment will not impose a requirement upon the Pentagon to implement nondiscrimination. So, in other words, the Pentagon will have statutory legal discretion to implement whatever policy it wants, whether that’s integration or discrimination. We are not afraid of the compromise. It’s not perfect, but pretty darn good. That’s because the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president of the United States, the commander-in-chief, have made it very clear that they want gays to serve openly and equally. So we have every confidence that once the law is repealed, good regulations will be put in place, and those good regulations will basically be tamper-proof if future administrations try to make trouble. We think that’s a victory.
By Courtesy Photo
Belkin (right) and the Palm Center have been unusually effective working with military brass like Retired Army Colonel George Reed (left) and Congressmember Lois Capps (center). Belkin described Capps as “the nicest member of Congress,” saying her personal contacts have proven invaluable in the push to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
As to why attitudes have changed, it’s because, in part, of political leaders like Congresswoman Capps, who have talked about gay and lesbian issues in a very mainstream way. The issue has become more normalized over time, and that is why people are able to have conversations about it. At the same time, the cultural change is not only about political leaders. There have been a lot of important and brave grassroots heroes who have been working on the ground to try to help the public understand that homosexuality is not scary, and gay and lesbian people deserve their rights just like everybody else.
In 1993, “gays in the military” was the biggest fundraising cash cow for the Christian right that they ever had. They raised tens of millions of dollars off this one, and coordinated a massive national lobbying campaign. This time, you have Republican leaders in the House like Buck McKeon sending letters to the Pentagon every now and then, but basically they are posturing. They know they lost.
“People worship the military in this society,” said Belkin — shown at the Air Force Academy — explaining why the Palm Center has focused on the experience of sexual minorities in the armed forces.