Barack Obama, Harry Reid And The Secret History Of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal

It was Reid who pushed the White House to act on repeal — driven by LGBTQ activists who broke the rules of Washington.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (left) played a significant role in the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010, during the tenure of President Barack Obama.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (left) played a significant role in the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010, during the tenure of President Barack Obama.

The following is adapted from Ryan Grim’s new book “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to AOC, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement,” which comes out May 28.

Sen. Barbara Boxer was in the fight of her political life when President Barack Obama joined her at a Los Angeles fundraiser in April 2010. But the night would not be about the longtime California lawmaker. Amid the crowd of some 1,400 people gathered at the California Science Center was a handful of activists from a recently formed pro-LGBT direct action group called GetEQUAL.

The group’s members were frustrated with the White House’s foot-dragging on gay issues, particularly after the many promises Obama had made to LGBT Americans on the campaign trail in 2008. They were also well aware that Democrats would likely lose control of at least one congressional chamber in the upcoming midterms, leaving a narrow window in which to pass any key LGBT legislative priorities before Republicans took over. Repealing the military’s ban on openly lesbian and gay service members, a 17-year-old law known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” was foremost on their minds. To them, Obama was the key ― the repeal effort would live or die by whether it was a top priority for the president and they were going to make sure it was top of mind for him that night.

“Hello, California!” Obama answered to cheers from the adoring crowd. “I am fired up!” But a couple of minutes into Obama’s speech, the GetEQUAL activists began a popcorn-style interruption in which one person would start chanting and, as soon as they were silenced by the Secret Service, another would pick up the chant from a different place in the room. Obama, who was usually expert at handling hecklers, was distracted. Finally, Dan Fotou, who had planted himself just 30 feet from the stage, landed a direct blow. “It’s time to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’!” he yelled, locking eyes with Obama, who abruptly broke from his script. “We are going to do that!” Obama responded, glaring and pointing at Fotou. “Hey, hold on a second. … We are going to do that,” he told the crowd, getting a brief respite.

But shortly after Fotou was removed from the space, the chanting began anew, continuing for several minutes. Obama, flummoxed, stepped away from the podium and out of frame from the cameras entirely to privately ask Boxer how she had voted on the gay ban in the early ’90s. She’d first been elected to the Senate in 1992 ― the most recent Year of the Woman ― and was pushing for a fourth term. When he returned, Obama reported, “I just checked with Barbara ― so if anybody else is thinking about starting a chant, Barbara didn’t even vote for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the first place.”

By the time GetEQUAL activists had been entirely removed, they had hijacked the president’s speech for close to seven minutes. Following the event, Obama was “unusually surly,” as National Journal later depicted Obama’s mood, and let some expletives fly in front of his point man on repeal, White House aide Jim Messina, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s deputy.

In this June 26, 2015, file photo, people gather in Lafayette Park to see the White House illuminated with rainbow colors in commemoration of the Supreme Court's ruling to legalize same-sex marriage.
In this June 26, 2015, file photo, people gather in Lafayette Park to see the White House illuminated with rainbow colors in commemoration of the Supreme Court's ruling to legalize same-sex marriage.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

The palpable tension between Obama and the activists that night grew out of a decades-old dynamic between national Democrats and LGBT voters, who had become a critical part of the Democratic coalition. National Democrats needed gay support both at the ballot box and to line their fundraising coffers, but they had also grown wary of hot-button LGBT issues that had given Republicans a divisive cudgel to wield in the last several election cycles. For that reason, national Democrats had developed a habit of courting gay voters during election season while delivering next to nothing for them once the votes were counted. The LGBT activists at Boxer’s fundraiser were putting Obama on notice that simply talking the talk wasn’t going to cut it anymore. LGBT Americans were done with waiting around patiently for Democrats to decide the political climate was safe enough to engage on their issues.

Ultimately, the successful repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” would become an integral step toward the most profound Obama-era achievement for LGBT Americans ― the advent of marriage equality nationwide. When Obama entered office, support for same-sex marriage stood at about 40%, well under a bare majority of the nation. Notably, not a single piece of major pro-LGBT legislation had ever been signed into law even though early versions of the hate crimes and workplace protections bills had first been introduced in the mid- to late ’90s. That deficit of political progress was going to have to shift in a positive direction. LGBT Americans needed to prove they were tolerated, accepted and embraced by enough of their fellow citizens that granting same-sex couples the freedom to marry wouldn’t upend the national order.

In early 2009, no one imagined the Supreme Court’s marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was just over a handful of years away. But with the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine the high court delivering that decision without at least some demonstration of pro-gay political will serving as a down payment on those freedoms.

That’s particularly true because the young president and his advisers would have to be convinced that putting energy into advancing LGBT policies would benefit them politically. Unfortunately, the most recent data points all suggested the opposite. From Bill Clinton’s initial handling of the military’s gay ban to John Kerry’s bungled handling of the 2004 state gay marriage bans and his subsequent loss in the presidential race, Democrats perceived political battles over gay rights as costing them a lot with little to no payoff.

Not long after Obama’s inauguration, the White House announced it planned to work with the military to study the issue of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which purportedly allowed gays to serve as long as they hid their sexuality. Whatever might happen on the gay ban, it wasn’t going to happen quickly and probably not for a year or even more. “Study” meant one thing in Washington: delay. In fact, the issue had been studied repeatedly over the last several decades with the bulk of the research pointing to one conclusion: Allowing openly gay service members would not significantly harm military readiness and unit cohesion and might even improve them.

As expected, the Obama administration’s movement on repeal languished in 2009 following the White House’s stated intent to study the issue. Obama’s top lieutenants assumed that passing an LGBT-inclusive hate crimes bill in the fall of 2009 would be enough to satiate activists, but they miscalculated badly. By spring of 2009, queer activists were already tweaked by the lack of movement on their issues and had begun organizing for a National Equality March on Washington. It took place on a glorious fall day in October, drawing some 200,000 marchers and serving as the first overt rebellion by part of the progressive coalition that had gotten Obama elected. LGBT activists were serious about holding Obama to his word and repeal had been one of his chief campaign promises to the community. In late January of 2010, Obama would repledge his commitment to overturning the law during his State of the Union speech, suggesting that he was finally serious about pushing forward on the issue.

In the weeks that followed, the chair of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, would tell a Senate hearing that he personally supported repealing the measure as a matter of “integrity” for the military. Mullen’s testimony was a significant shot in the arm for repeal. At the same hearing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates would announce a plan to undertake a massive study of the matter, surveying hundreds of thousands of active-duty troops in order to explore how repeal would affect military readiness. Finally, something concrete had emerged. But Gates set the date for completion of the report for Dec. 1, 2010, and quickly began stressing that no votes should be taken on legislation before the study was completed. That timing seemed a death knell for repeal that year — there wouldn’t be time to shepherd repeal legislation through both chambers of Congress in less than a month.

The White House stayed silent on the timeline until press secretary Robert Gibbs was grilled on it during a briefing. He said that Obama had “set forward a process” with the Pentagon that he believed was the best way to move forward toward repeal. In fact, Gates would later write in his memoir that both Obama and Emanuel “promised — unequivocally and on several occasions — to oppose any legislation before completion of the review.”

But what the White House, Democratic lawmakers and even gay Beltway advocates never counted on was having rage from the streets arrive at Washington’s doorstep after California voters passed Proposition 8, which halted gay marriages in the state by amending the California Constitution. Prop 8 passed the same night Obama was elected president in 2008, making it a profoundly bittersweet night for LGBT Americans. GetEQUAL grew out of the protest movement that followed, and throughout the rest of Obama’s first term, the group would serve as an inconvenient reminder of what LGBT Americans expected after helping elect the strongest Democratic majority government in generations. GetEQUAL activists hijacked Human Rights Campaign events, interrupted congressional proceedings, and staged protests targeting key Democratic lawmakers like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But in 2010 in particular, they directed some of their most effective actions straight at the White House. Several times that year, lesbian, gay and transgender veterans handcuffed themselves to the fence surrounding the White House, using the spectacle to alert the ubiquitous White House press corps and the nation that a key Democratic constituency was losing patience with Obama.

Lt. Dan Choi (center) and others handcuff themselves to the fence outside the White House on Nov. 15, 2010, to demand that Obama keep his promise to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
Lt. Dan Choi (center) and others handcuff themselves to the fence outside the White House on Nov. 15, 2010, to demand that Obama keep his promise to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
ASSOCIATED PRESS/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The impatience and pressure these hungry activists brought to Washington didn’t necessarily force Obama to do something he didn’t want to do. He wanted to be good on the issues and viewed himself as a champion of civil rights. In fact, Gates would also write in his memoir that repealing the gay ban was “the only military matter” on which he “ever sensed deep passion” from Obama. But the president was also an incrementalist at heart who had forged his identity through working to make change within the confines of America’s institutions. What the activists did was disrupt those confines in order to speed up the timeline on repeal. They were the catalyst that initiated the chemical reaction, but they never would have succeeded without the other elements in place: a cultural shift toward acceptance of LGBT Americans, a willing president and Congress that just needed a push, a decades-long legal advance in the courts that was finally ripening, and an assortment of pro-repeal lobbyists, lawmakers and legislative aides using whatever leverage they had to push repeal through before the close of the 111th Congress.

All of these critical components made possible what was nothing short of a series of small miracles from the spring of 2010 to the waning days of December. In spite of the agreed upon process from the White House and the Pentagon, a May vote in a key Senate committee attached the repeal measure to the military’s must-pass budget bill, giving repeal a fighting chance for passage before the end of the year. Though the vote appeared to be a silver bullet, the budget bill languished into December, reflecting the continued reservations of both Pentagon officials and the Democratic caucus, which had no appetite for passing the legislation prior to the midterms. But heading into the lame-duck session, the repeal effort scored two game-changers that would turn Gates into a sudden and urgent booster of overturning the ban.

The first came on Oct. 12, when a federal judge who had ruled “don’t ask, don’t tell” unconstitutional a month earlier placed a worldwide injunction on the ban in a case that had originally been filed in 2004, Log Cabin Republicans v. United States. The order sent shock waves through the Pentagon as officials rushed to issue new worldwide guidelines that would normally be months in the making. A little over a week later, an appellate court temporarily suspended the injunction while it reviewed the decision, forcing the military to shift course on the policy twice in the span of eight days, with the threat of more abrupt disruptions down the road.

Gates suddenly understood: If Congress didn’t repeal the gay ban legislatively, the courts were going to overturn it, and likely sooner rather than later. Legislative repeal had all sorts of built-in structures that would allow the military to make the changes methodically over the course of many months of planning. But having the policy under review in the courts could leave the military in limbo possibly for years. That instability on such a consequential personnel matter would be intolerable for an institution that thrives on order, discipline and churning recruitment.

Just a couple of short months after that ruling, Gates would become a fervent and vocal supporter of legislative repeal. His evolution was helped along by the results of the massive study the military had undertaken on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The final 250-page report on the ban’s repeal found the risk “to overall military effectiveness is low.” In fact, 67% of the some 115,000 active-duty service members said repeal would either be “a positive” or have “no effect” at all on the readiness of their units; only 12% predicted a negative impact. After the results were released in late November, Gates would begin his final push to convince lawmakers to repeal the ban before the end of the 111th Congress.

“Gates suddenly understood: If Congress didn’t repeal the gay ban legislatively, the courts were going to overturn it, and likely sooner rather than later.”

After the tea party wipeout in November 2010, congressional Democratic leadership met on Dec. 4 with Obama in the Oval Office to talk about the agenda for the lame duck, the last shot Democrats would have at unified control. Obama made clear a nuclear weapons treaty he had negotiated with Russia, called New START, was his top priority. Nuclear arms control was one of the issues Obama cared about both personally and as a legacy item. In the 1980s, as Obama came of political age, he had marched against nuclear weapons, and he grew up under the fear of global annihilation at the press of a button. “The administration’s first, second and third priority was getting this START treaty ratified,” said one person in the room.

After the meeting, Reid stayed behind to talk to the president one on one. The Senate majority leader had never been a vocal champion of LGBT rights, but throughout the 2000s, as he grew closer to the party’s activist base, his politics on social issues had been swinging left. It had also become personal: Reid had a niece who was a lesbian, he would later tell reporters. Her coming out had just the kind of political effect pioneering gay rights activist Harvey Milk had promised it would decades ago.

The majority leader would never make a threat to Obama in front of anybody else, and he wasn’t about to do it today. The two wandered over to the Oval Office window to chat. “Reid put the screws on him. … Reid in so many words made it clear to the president that he wouldn’t get his START treaty ratified if he didn’t get on board with repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” said the person who’d previously been in the room and was told about it afterward. “Let’s put it this way: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ became a priority for him.”

Repeal hit the Senate floor on Dec. 9, 2010, tucked into the Pentagon spending bill. Reid had reasoned that Republicans lacked the votes to strip it and surely wouldn’t be craven enough to block an entire annual defense bill — which would mark a first in decades. Reid had been wrong. They were quite willing to take it down — with several Republicans withholding their support, the bill failed. Dan Choi, the West Point grad who had handed off his military academy ring to Reid, would soon check himself in for mental health treatment, collapsing under the weight of the defeat.

Within minutes of its demise, then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the lawmaker spearheading the repeal effort, hastily arranged a press conference to resurrect the stand-alone bill that had been attached to the budget bill earlier that year. Lieberman, who sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and was deeply invested in ending the ban, repeated something he had been saying for weeks: He had the 60 votes necessary to pass repeal, if only Reid would bring the bill to the floor after meeting the GOP’s demand to vote on tax cuts. It all came down to a matter of priorities — would Democrats prioritize repeal as they had repeatedly promised or would they use it as a pawn in a much larger game of chess?

Reid planned to recess for the year on Friday, Dec. 17. With basically one week left, the Senate needed to vote on a tax bill, a massive government funding bill for the coming year and START. By midweek, the tax cut measure had passed, but Reid was still publicly hedging on repeal. On Wednesday, the House passed its repeal bill, leaving only the Senate remaining. “I don’t know if I’ll bring it up [for a vote] before Christmas,” he said, suggesting that technically the session extended into early January. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, White House press secretary Gibbs was finally acknowledging that they had the votes to pass repeal, but added, “if we have time to.”

It was looking grim. Advocates had managed to build enough support for ending the gay ban to pass repeal on its own merits and yet the White House seemed content to let the clock run out and Republicans take control of the House. Worse, White House aides were pressing Reid and Pelosi to stop their push for repeal, with what one person on the receiving end of it called “a pretty fierce lobbying effort to get him to back off of it,” arguing that the votes weren’t there and that the focus should be elsewhere.

Neither backed down. On the night of Dec. 16, Reid called Obama in the Oval Office to tell him he planned to put repeal on the floor. Obama made a strong case against it, convinced it would fail and derail the remainder of the lame-duck agenda. Reid heard him out before delivering his response: “Well, Mr. President, sometimes you just gotta roll the dice.” Then he hung up.

After we reached out to Obama’s post-presidential office for comment, Obama called Reid to discuss the issue, and Reid said that he would talk with us again to clarify any potential misunderstanding. “There is no doubt that ― let me say this the right way ― the issue was over the [START] treaty and ‘don’t ask, dont tell.’ Now, Obama was always in favor of [repealing] ‘don’t ask don’t tell,‘” Reid said. “I had to make sure that I could pass both of them and I wasn’t sure I could. So I decided what I was going to do is get what I thought was going to be the hardest out of the way first, and that was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I got that done, knew I had the votes for that, then I did the [START] thing, that’s how it worked. But please, I don’t want anyone to think that Obama did not favor ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ [repeal].”

We asked Reid: “So Obama’s concern was that it might not have the votes and it and the Dream Act failing might then take down the START treaty, is that right?”

“Yes, and my job was to get both of them done, and when I got the votes to do it, I said, ‘Here I go, I’m gonna do it,’ and so that’s how it worked out,” Reid said.

Reid also said that in “the day or two I did this, my conversation was never with him, it was with whoever his chief of staff was.”

That conflicts with what Reid said in our earlier interview, when he had said, “I told the president, I understand how important the START treaty is, and I’ll do everything I can to help with that. But I said, I’m going to go ahead and ‘roll the dice,’ exact words, ‘roll the dice,’ on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I said, I think it should turn out well for both of us, but I’m rolling the dice. It turned out well for both of us.” The gap between the two accounts is not hard to explain.

“What I’m saying here is it would be unfair to say that Obama did not favor ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal,” Reid said. “We were all a little concerned about getting it done, but I had to make sure I had the votes to get it done. When I did, I said ― you know, you’re never quite sure, because people say, oh yeah, I’m with ya ― but I thought I had the votes on this, and that’s where the term ‘we’re gonna roll the dice, I’ll see what happens’ [came from]. But I at that time thought I had the votes.”

People close to Obama, meanwhile, insist that Obama never doubted whether the votes were there for repeal and supported Reid’s push for a vote.

Back in 2010, Reid quickly slotted in a floor vote for “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and overcame a filibuster with 63 votes, three more than needed. On final passage, it picked up two more, going to Obama’s desk on a vote of 65-31.

Later that day, with hunger-striking young immigrants watching from the gallery, Reid put the Dream Act on the floor. It fell five votes short of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster.

Obama and Reid talk privately in the Oval Office on Dec. 4, 2010. After congressional Democratic leaders met with the president that day about the agenda for the lame-duck session, the Senate majority leader spoke with Obama about the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
Obama and Reid talk privately in the Oval Office on Dec. 4, 2010. After congressional Democratic leaders met with the president that day about the agenda for the lame-duck session, the Senate majority leader spoke with Obama about the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
Pete Souza/White House

Good to his word, after “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, Reid put START on the floor and successfully ratified it. Top White House adviser David Axelrod would later write in his memoir, “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics,” that Obama had gotten nearly everything “on his list” during the lame-duck session, including START, among other bills, and “to our mild surprise and great relief,” the repeal of the military’s gay ban.

Going into the 111th Congress, not a single piece of major pro-LGBT legislation had ever been enacted. After it, the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” had been entered into the U.S. Code for the very first time with the expansion of the hate crimes law and explicit government-sanctioned discrimination of lesbians and gays risking their lives to protect America’s freedoms would come to an end.

And, no, people didn’t march in the streets following the demise of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as the Rahm Emanuels of Washington had feared. In fact, for all the blood, sweat and tears it took to drag repeal across the finish line, the ban fell with the whimper it should have, given the overwhelming public support for ending it. In that respect, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal — which had struck fear in the hearts of many Democrats — marked a profound change in momentum on gay and transgender issues in Washington. In fact, every time the White House took a step to advance equality for LGBT Americans, the political goodwill and praise it received in return consistently proved to far outweigh any blowback. And pushing freedom forward for a new chapter in America’s civil rights story also had the benefit of putting Obama exactly where he envisioned himself in the arc of history. As one White House aide would later observe, every new win on gay issues just got easier and easier.

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