In Ending DADT, America Comes Out of the Closet

If there's one lesson we should have learned in the debate over gay service, it's that "don't ask, don't tell" was never about military effectiveness. It was a moral and political abuse of power, propped up by a ban on speaking truth to that power.
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As I step away from ten years of researching and speaking about "don't ask, don't tell," questions swirl about the fate of a policy that mandates deception in the name of morale; that has wasted the talents of thousands of badly needed personnel while filling shortfalls with ex-convicts and drug abusers; and that's been a needless and undeserved indignity to a group of American citizens who simply want to serve their country like millions of others who proudly wear the uniform.

In a compromise crafted this week by lawmakers, the White House, the Pentagon and gay advocates, legislation would dismantle the Congressional ban on openly gay service by getting Congress out of the way and clearing the path for the military to eliminate the ban altogether as early as next year. It would not immediately halt discharges, nor would it include a statutory clause banning discrimination against gays.

Like your first time sky-diving, or the conquering of any fear that holds out a kind of exhilarating liberation on the other side, many openly gay Americans will tell you that taking that tough first step out of the closet is terrifying, but the fear turns out to be overblown: it's better on the other side, where a responsible kind of freedom and a greater sense of dignity replace a furtive life of secrets and deception. And crushing the closet doesn't only help gay people: each time someone comes out, it reduces the likelihood that a straight person will be lied to, alienated from friends or co-workers, or even drawn into a sham marriage.

That's why DADT is so egregious, because it bars coming out, the single most important step in speeding equal dignity for gay people. As I toured West Point Military Academy earlier this month to lead two days of welcome dialogue on "don't ask, don't tell," I came with a simple message that I think sums up where our nation stands today on this fraught issue whose time has finally come: It's time for our nation to come out, for it's indeed better on the other side.

That's why the compromise plan for Congress to get out of the way makes sense. As my Palm Center colleague, Aaron Belkin, has said, "2010 is not 1993." As much as it sometimes seems like a replay, it is not. At West Point I was stopped in the halls by colonels thanking me for my work on "don't ask, don't tell." Cadets strolled into the West Point book store for my heavily promoted book signing, and walked out with a book whose cover is graced with a rainbow-colored military ribbon. The military is preparing for change, and stand ready to join twenty-five allies in relegating the gay ban to the dustbin of history.

At a Brookings conference last week, sixteen military experts from six countries took turns assuring us that lifting the bans in their countries was a complete "non-event" despite the very same predictions of doom we have often heard here. Down the line, they said their command climates were improved as the force turned its focus to uniform codes of conduct instead of suspicions about identity, and as officers were freed up from distracting anti-gay inquiries to focus on what matters. Overheard in the bathroom was an American military official actually apologizing to foreign ministers that the world's leading exporter of democracy is so "Neanderthal" about this issue, putting America not in the company of Britain, Canada, France, Australia and Israel, but Iran, North Korea, China, Pakistan, and Yemen.

The military is beginning to get it. This is not to say all resistance has fallen. But what's slowing us down now is politics. Indeed, the current compromise proposal is an effort to get politics out of the way. It was first outlined by a 2008 bi-partisan panel of retired flag officers who issued a report calling on Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" and return authority for openly gay service back to the Pentagon. The idea was given new life last weekend when Gen. John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, backed it in a Washington Post op-ed. It was apparently key to winning the crucial vote of Sen. Ben Nelson, the conservative Democrat who gave his support to the plan this week, saying he would back it because "it removes politics from the process." It also has the support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.

This military buy-in is critical to securing the final votes needed to get the Congressional albatross out of the way, and is also essential to an enduring solution, even if it doesn't come as quickly as many would like. The military and the nation are finally "coming out," and many in the gay community recall that sometimes we, too, needed an extended time table to get to the other side.

But now the pressure must not be let up. The compromise legislation makes lifting the ban contingent on the President, Defense Secretary and Joint Chiefs Chairman awaiting the results of the current Pentagon study, and certifying that the military has prepared an implementation plan that is "consistent with the standards of military readiness" required to keep our military strong. Will this be a problem?

Obviously, such a plan is open to the risk of bureaucratic delay. This means we must continue to keep the pressure on, as we are now. But the legislation basically hands over decision-making power from a legislative body full of people hostile or indifferent to gay rights, to three national leaders who have publicly supported openly gay service.

Could those leaders insist on inaction or pretend there is no way to implement repeal while upholding military readiness? The signs above indicate the ban is genuinely on its way out and that politics is currently the problem. Everyone knows the 10-month study period was a political tactic designed to delay addressing repeal until after the mid-term elections. At a taxpayer cost of at least $10 million, Washington and Arlington teamed up to study the impact of repeal yet again, taking ten months to determine what fifty years of research has already determined: that the impact of repeal is negligible and whatever impact there may be is manageable. I'm all for military buy-in, but this study could easily have been completed before the mid-term elections in November. Get the politics out of the way, and the path forward is far less thorny.

In fact, today I am announcing that I have completed the Pentagon Working Group's work for them, five months early, and have posted it all here on this new Research Portal. Since the 1950s, research has shown there's no need to ban open gays from the military, and it's not just research by gay advocates, but by government scholars, foreign militaries, independent academics, and indeed our own military, which has acknowledged the gay ban is "inherently subjective in nature" and is the result of "professional military judgment, not scientific or sociological analysis." The point was reinforced last year when an article written by an Active Duty Air Force officer in Joint Force Quarterly, the prestigious military journal published for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded "there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly."

We also know that the vaunted polling of the military force is likely to tell us what several such polls have already told us: that a slight majority of military members would rather not serve with open gays, but that most are personally comfortable with gay people. Mountains of research also shows that such opinions do not mean there would be a mass exodus of soldiers if the ban were lifted, or that ending "don't ask, don't tell" would impair cohesion just because many enlisted people would rather keep it in place. The relevant question is not what do service members want (as Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, told me in February, "it is not our practice to go within our military and poll our force to determine if they like the laws of the land or not."); rather, the question is whether troops are capable of serving with gays, and research shows that they are.

The existence of such overwhelming research--all showing that we already know that implementing repeal will be consistent with military readiness--will make it extremely tough for the Pentagon to delay certification indefinitely, under the pretext that it still cannot be sure it can end the ban without harming cohesion.

But research only moves you so far in public policy. Let's look at the politics. How did we get here, and will we get out? Democrats in both the White House and Congress, though sympathetic to repeal, shied away from pushing forward on repeal, concerned about forcing lawmakers to take "tough votes" on "controversial issues" before the mid-terms.

But is repeal of DADT a "tough vote"? Actually no. By all accounts, lifting the ban has ceased to be polarizing. Opinion support for repeal is through the roof, with the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, conducted just last week, finding that 78% of Americans favor openly gay service, with roughly 60% of Republicans in favor. Further polling suggests that a vote for repeal is not politically harmful: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found this year that, statistically, voters are no more likely to punish their representative for supporting repeal than opposing it, regardless of whether the respondent is for or against openly gay service. For most of this year, as one military leader after another announced new support for repeal, the news was met largely with shrugs, and even the reigning conservative movement of our time--the Tea Partiers--seem to have scrupulously avoided gay rights issues, reflecting a new calculus that anti-gay sentiment no longer helps conservative politics.

Meanwhile, the White House faced continued pressure from the gay community and saw that the military itself was failing to enforce the policy, as it sent known gays to war despite "don't ask, don't tell." Just in time, it looks like the White House has chosen to press forward, however quietly, in slowly dismantling DADT.

Efforts to delay repeal beyond the mid-terms have been transparently disingenuous. Though the Pentagon insisted the study was not about whether to repeal the ban but how to prepare for it, some claimed that statutory repeal would somehow preempt the study; yet if Congress didn't act to free the military's hands, the Pentagon would lack the authority to carry out its own recommendations. As expected, opponents seized the window granted to them by the study period, and hide behind the study to oppose change, knowing repeal would be tougher after the mid-terms. They continue to suggest that the study may reveal something that badly needs to be put into the legislation in order for repeal to proceed smoothly, when in fact, there is no reason that legislation should micromanage how repeal happens. The Pentagon should study the existing research and prepare for change; the Congress should get out of the way; then the military should implement a new policy that ends "don't ask, don't tell" and bars discrimination against gay troops.

Republicans are now demanding proof that the current policy is hurting the military and that ending it would help. For what it's worth, here's the evidence they requested. But no policy change comes with proof of outcomes, since no one can tell the future. Demanding metaphysical certainty when it comes to gay equality while no such certainty is possible on any other issue looks suspiciously like prejudice.

Indeed, if there's one lesson we should have learned in the debate over gay service, it's that "don't ask, don't tell" was never about military effectiveness. It was a moral and political abuse of power, propped up by a ban on speaking truth to that power. This cover has now been blown. Rear Adm. John Hutson, the former JAG of the Navy who participated in formulating "don't ask, don't tell," but has called the policy a "moral passing of the buck," explained in a recent interview that the military "hung everything on unit cohesion" for lack of any rational basis for the gay ban. "That was the catch phrase," he said. The policy was created "by the seat of our pants. It wasn't empirical. It wasn't studied, it was completely visceral and intuitive."

And so now, it appears, the military and the nation are finally coming out. There is more work to be done, but kudos are also due to those leaders who sometimes bucked pressure from their own communities to side with equal rights in the military-- Adm. Mike Mullen, Rep. Patrick Murphy, Sen. Ben Nelson--and to others who have fought for what's right--Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Carl Levin, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and President Barack Obama if he drags this across the finish line. Trust me, it's better on the other side.

* * *

On a personal note, after this week I will leave the Palm Center to join the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, a think tank conducting research to help speed LGBT equality nationwide. I leave the communications of the Palm Center in the capable hands of our fearless Director, Aaron Belkin, and I thank HuffPo editors and readers for these years of important diablog on gay rights and other issues.

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