"Don't Ask Don't Tell" Repeal: This Day Has Finally Come

For seventeen years, the military has had "Don't Ask Don't Tell" in place. We're talking about people who very easily could have opted out of serving their country -- and serving in a military that, at times, despised them, dishonored them, condoned their harassment, shrugged off their. Yet through it all, gay men and women kept right on signing up to serve in the military. Today, seventeen years after they began their mission, reinforcements have finally arrived.

He was unconscious but still alive, gargling up blood. His face was so disfigured no one was sure of his race, much less his name. Patrolman Anthony Aptimes got a pulse, then lost it. He wiped the blood out of the sailor's mouth with a T-shirt and pressed on his chest, trying to restart his heart. With each compression, blood trickled from the sailor's mouth and bubbled out of a gash on the bridge of his nose. It would have expedited the rescue if the ambulance had been directed to come up behind the indoor swimming pool on the road that paralleled the Navy base or had parked out on the road itself. But the one landmark U.S. military personnel know along the liberty trail, which connects U.S. Fleet Activities in Sasebo to the five-dollar-a-beer karaoke bars in Sailor Town, is the Albuquerque Bridge, the suspension walkway across the Sasebo River. That's where the ambulance was directed, and that's why the dying sailor was moved. Two shore patrolmen, a base security cop, and Seaman Jonathan Witte slipped a jacket under his body and carried him about a hundred yards, through the camphor trees of Sasebo Park, where elderly blue-smocked women tend gardens by day and spermy gaijin romance local maids at night. He was six feet one, weighed about 180 pounds, and had blond hair. To Seaman Witte, the eyewitness who'd sounded the alarm, it looked as if the sailor's nose had been shaved clean off his face. Witte cradled the man's head and stared at the tattoos on his arms. When the group reached the bridge, they set the sailor down and flung the blood off their hands. A crowd gathered. The ambulance arrived. A corpsman rushed up with a breathing bag, another unloaded the gurney. The sailor wasn't breathing; his heart wasn't beating.

"Schneider?..." said a shore patrolman squinting at the military ID he'd found in the sailor's waist pack. "Schluter?.."

"Schindler!" cried Seaman Witte, suddenly remembering the tattoos.

--Chip Brown, "The Accidental Martyr," Esquire, December 1993

Seventeen years ago, then-President Bill Clinton had a crazy idea that all of the men and women serving in the United States Armed Forces were human beings, regardless of their professed sexual orientation. Clinton was motivated, in part, by a man named Allen Schindler, a radioman in the U.S. Navy who was stomped into unrecognizability and, ultimately, murdered by two of his fellow sailors because Schindler was gay. And so he promised to undertake a massive effort to make it so that gay soldiers could serve in the military without fear or discrimination.

Congress, as well-populated with jerkoffs then as they were at anytime in their history, fought this effort with the tenacity they typically reserve for fundraising their own elections. At the time, there were many pretty sounding reasons for keeping gays out of the military. Many of them -- "unit cohesion" and "morale" -- sounded suspiciously similar to the reasons proffered long ago by those who wanted to keep the military from being integrated racially. The rest of the reasons were incredibly stupid ones -- Someone might get a boner in a foxhole! Someone's junk might get ogled in a shower! -- that were embarassing to see taken seriously.

Still, what was to be done about the gays in the military? Well, after all the wrangling, everyone agreed to a compromise that came to be known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." What did it all mean? Well, for gay soldiers, it meant that they could continue to serve their country, so long as they didn't tell anyone they were gay. If they "told," they would be discharged.

It was never really clear what the "Don't Ask" side of the equation amounted to. When you look at this training guide on the "homosexual conduct policy" published in comic book form -- yes, comic book form -- by the Department of the Army's Assistant Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, it makes it clear that once the Rumors Of Gay start floating around, a whole lot of "asking" starts. And while it may be a trick of memory, I cannot recall anyone ever getting tossed from the military for ASKING whether someone was gay. Mostly, it was the telling!

(By the way, eventually, a "Don't Harrass" measure had to be instituted as well, because years after DADT went into effect, gay soldiers, like PFC First Class Barry Winchell, were still being harrassed and murdered by their comrades. Why no one thought to consider whether it was the harrasser/murderers, and not the gay soldiers, that were the threat to "unit cohesion," is something that deserves to be explained.)

At any rate, "Don't Ask Don't Tell" became law, and it mainly achieved a pretty way of talking about a problem that had been swept under the rug by ostensible grown-ups. In theory, it was the way that members of the LGBT community could continue to serve in the armed forces. In practice, however, the law wasn't so much "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as it was "Do Lie About Who You Are, Do Hope That You Never Get Caught."

At the time, I think that people found this acceptable only because they imagined that military service to be a brief period of time. Surely, the gay soldier could just chill out for a few years, cool it on the gay, and wait until they had rejoined civilian life to come out to everybody. What's left out of these considerations were the careers that the military offered, the health care that military service entitled you to, the college scholarships, the teaching positions, the pensions, that line on your resume that permanently enshrined a lie...

Mostly, I think people just were happy that a palatable sounding solution had been achieved. Those guys who started that "No Labels" thing last week about ending partisan rancor? If they'd been around in 1993, they would be precisely the sort of people to loudly campaign for "Don't Ask Don't Tell" as a "reasonable" solution that promoted "civility."

Of course, activists who recognized the stultifying unfairness of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" never stopped fighting it. And over the years, attitudes toward members of the LGBT community slowly started to shift in a more positive direction. But nothing has helped refocus attention on the stupidity of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy as actually going to war. See, once we were off on out long, interminable, costly wars against "terror," and all hands were on deck in the fight that would definee our future, it became really untenable for the military to be kicking out what few Farsi translators they had because they also happened to be gay.

Yeah, let's face it: that was a moment where even a lot of people who had previously been not-too-sharp in the issue finally had to say, "Well, that sure sounds like some bullshit."

And so, as President Barack Obama assumed office, here's a breakdown of where the country was, in terms of wanting to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.

--By large majorities, Democrats wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.
--By large majorities, Republicans wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.
--By large majorities, self-described liberals wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.
--By large majorities, self-described conservatives wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.
--By large majorities, self-described independents wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.
--By large majorities, evangelical Christians wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.
--By large majorities, atheists wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.
--The Secretary of Defense wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.
--Many of the figures who did not support gays serving in the military, like Sam Nunn and Colin Powell, wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell

And this guy, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff really, REALLY wanted to end Don't Ask Don't Tell.

For anyone fighting to preserve the policy -- and there remained some hollow-eyed, dagger-hearted zombies in the land that did -- the walls were coming down. Even as public pressure to end the policy mounted, judicial decisions were coming down that doomed its future. Because the administration wanted to end the policy in the most enduring way possible, President Obama wanted Congress to bring the matter to a close. This rankled many people -- like me! -- who would have liked the policy done away with by the imperial stroke of his pen. But the President is right -- whatever immediacy you'd gain by dispensing with the policy by executive order comes at a cost: the permanence provided by legislative action.

In my defense, I never considered the possibility that Congress might be capable of doing the right thing. That's obviously something that the White House thought as well, because to make repealing DADT as easy as possible for Congress, the Pentagon undertook a massive survey, with utterly unimpeachable statistical standards, that sussed out where current members of the U.S. Armed Forces stood on the issue. And by large majorities, they told the Pentagon that they didn't care if the people they served alongside were gay.

Still, this was not a done deal. Let's remember: the Senate, it exists, and it is an awful place filled with some awful people. There, we've seen many obstacles on the road to repeal rear their head. There were supporters who've reneged because the vote didn't come up until other matters were settled. Supporters who couldn't do the right thing because the preservation of Senate procedure was more precious to them -- this despite the fact that no Senate procedure has ever been stomped to death by men in boots. There was new Senator Joe Manchin, who showed up for work a coward after parading around in campaign ads, with guns.

And of course, there was Senator John McCain and his decade-long passion project that closely resembles Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," except that the "Christ" is replaced by "everything McCain ever had that vaguely resembled a principle or something in which a human being would normally take pride." McCain moved goalposts and shifted standards and broke promises and basically demonstrated himself to be an implacable heel.

But, you know what, the less said about McCain, the better. Let's hang another "L" around his neck and move on.

Briefly, we can talk about the people who helped push this matter through to the endgame today. Representative Patrick Murphy, who fought for this in the House, will get to see it enacted before he leaves office in January. Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins -- who are typically the people who blow deals up as they near enactment -- took on the opposite role today, preserving the repeal as a standalone bill and keeping the votes whipped in favor. The House Democrats dug deep and provided their Senate colleagues with one last crutch, for auld lang syne, to get something enacted that the entire country wanted. And Harry Reid, who saw this Senate process through to the end, today.

And that's all we're going to say about those people, too.

For seventeen years, the military has had "Don't Ask Don't Tell" in place. And prior to that, gays have served in the armed forces with valor and honor and distinction. Isn't that amazing? We're talking about people who very easily could have opted out of serving their country -- and serving in a military that, at times, despised them, dishonored them, condoned their harassment, shrugged off their murder. If "Don't Ask Don't Tell" achieved anything, it gave gays and lesbians a pretty easy escape hatch from military service. It's not like getting killed in the Hindu Kush is something to which people aspire. It's not like our wars are getting more sensible. And yet through it all, gay men and women kept right on signing up to serve in the military. And those who have been discharged keep fighting to get back in.

Now why would they do a thing like that? Sign up to fight and die for a country that, at times, didn't seem to like them very much? Well, it's because these words -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" -- were part of the most successful viral marketing campaign in the history of the civilized world.

The men who wrote those words weren't the best at living up to them -- and none of us since have gotten it perfect, either. But someone wrote those words down on paper, and people read it, and when they read it, it made them want to fight for it.

And so today, it's important to remember that even as we have struggled and wrangled and argued over when and how we would actually start doing the right thing, men and women in the LGBT community have nevertheless continued to fight for us, and defend our right to live free and have these prolonged debates. It's important to remember that the argument we're concluding today continues the great American mission of forging a "more perfect union." It's important to remember that the argument we've concluded today was over territory that many gay soldiers fought to occupy. It's important to remember that some of the good people who formed that occupying force died in its defense. And today, seventeen years after they began their mission, reinforcements have finally arrived.

It's about time. But mostly, it's about justice.

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