Military leaders stand firm during 1st day of Senate hearings on ‘don’t ask don’t tell’

LISA KEEN  |  Keen News Service

The Pentagon’s top four leaders stood their ground Thursday, Dec. 2 during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Department’s report concerning “don’t ask don’t tell.” But there was considerable pushback from Republicans on the committee — and not just John McCain.

A lot of important ground was covered — both technically, concerning certification and benefits, and personally, with top military officials making clear that they believe repeal is the right thing to do and that now is the right time to do it.

Important, too, were questions by Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — Republicans who, until recently, were considered potential votes to at least allow the Senate to debate the repeal measure.

Collins spent her time for questions laying out arguments to rebut criticisms made of the Pentagon’s report by McCain and others; and Graham seemed to have backed off his complaint last week that the study failed to investigate “whether” DADT should be repealed.

What is the question?

One of the chief criticisms hurled at the report by McCain and several other Republicans was that the Pentagon did not ask a direct question of the 400,000 troops surveyed to determine whether they would like Congress to repeal DADT. Collins noted that the Pentagon does not ask troops whether they want to go to Iraq either and that, while troops were not asked about DADT repeal directly, their thinking was certainly conveyed by their responses to less direct questions.

The insistence, by McCain and others, that troops should have been polled on whether to keep DADT elicited the strongest rebuke from the military leaders themselves. Both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen repeatedly rejected the idea as “dangerous.”

Gates said that conducting a “referendum” on a matter of military policy “is a very dangerous path.” Mullen agreed, saying it would be an “incredibly bad precedent to essentially vote on a policy.”

McCain persisted, saying it was “not voting” on a policy, it was “asking their views.” He was not alone. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., said he, too, felt the Pentagon should have asked a direct question.

Both McCain and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., seemed to flirt with the use of some inflammatory tactics during the hearing. McCain twice raised the issue of who was responsible for the current public release of classified documents by a website called Wikileaks — an act that is considered to be one of the most damaging breaches in intelligence confidentiality in American history. It has been widely reported that the 22-year-old Army private first-class who has been arrested for enabling the leaks, Bradley Manning, has identified himself as gay.

Chambliss noted that Admiral Mullen, in his opening statement both Thursday and at a previous hearing in February, indicated he had served alongside gay people and had gay people under his command. Chambliss asked questions to suggest that Mullen had failed to seek the discharge of these gay servicemembers as required by existing military policy at the time. (Mullen, however, noted that military law and policy has changed during the course of his career in the service and that, in fact, “every single one” of the gays he knew of were discharged. “I did this, and I saw this,” said Mullen.)

What is the difference?

There was considerable discussion of how the repeal of DADT might mirror the changes that took place in the late 1940s and 1950s after then President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order requiring integration and again in the 1960s when Congress repealed a two-percent cap on the number of women who could serve.

“Social changes in the military have not been particularly easy,” said Gates. He said that “serious racial problems” plagued the military “at least through” the Vietnam War years and that women in the military still face the very real problem with sexual assaults.

McCain pointed out that, in 1993, General Colin Powell had opposed gays in the military and rebuffed attempts to compare discrimination based on race and that based on sexual orientation.

Jeh Johnson, the co-chair of the Pentagon study group, said he would agree that “issues of race and sexual orientation are fundamentally different.” But he said that, in his study of integration issues for the DADT report, he found that some of the nation’s greatest heroes in World War II “predicted negative consequences for unit cohesion if there was racial integration” of the troops.

Johnson, who is African-American, also noted that surveys of 3,000 to 4,000 troops in the 1940s found that opposition to racial integration ran as high as 80 percent — and that was at a time when there were only about 700,000 black soldiers in a force of 8 million troops. It was also a time, said Johnson, when integration was not accepted by society at large.

“But we did it. It took some time. It was not without incident,” said Johnson, “but we did it and, I think the chairman said, the military was stronger as a result.”

In fact, Johnson said the opposition to racial integration then was “much more intense than the opposition to gays serving openly today in the military.”

What are the bottom lines?

Thursday’s hearing came across as a vigorous debate between Republicans on the Committee, most of whom seem to oppose repeal, and Democrats and the Defense Department’s top brass, who appear to support it. But it took place against the backdrop of a political gaming of the Senate’s parliamentary procedures. All 42 Republicans in the Senate signed onto a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday saying they would not agree to vote on “any legislative item until the Senate has acted to fund the government and we have prevented the tax increase.” Although the language of “fund the government” might provide some wiggle room for the defense authorization bill (because it authorizes the expenditure of funds for the government), the letter is being widely characterized as an obstacle to consideration of DADT repeal, which is contained inside the defense authorization bill.

Maine Republican Collins’ questions Thursday suggest she is still for repealing DADT — a position she took in the Committee’s original vote on the defense authorization bill in September. Unless she and a few other Republicans provide Democrats with the votes they need to reach 60 — to allow the defense authorization bill to the floor— Thursday’s debate and debate that will take place during Day Two of the hearing, Friday, are moot.

Collins has been ridiculed by a number of pundits in recent days for saying she didn’t know how to vote on another contentious piece of legislation — the START treaty — and that she would appreciate getting some direction from two former Republican presidents — the two Bushes. Such negative publicity may have inspired Collins to ask the pro-repeal oriented questions she asked at Thursday’s hearings.

The hope of convincing some Republicans to wiggle themselves around the Republican drop dead letter could well have been behind Secretary Gates’ repeated assurances Thursday that he would not sign the necessary document to “certify” the troops are ready to implement repeal until “everything has been done” to ensure the troops are ready and that the chiefs of each of the service branches “are comfortable” that any risks to combat readiness had been “mitigated if not eliminated.”

Neither Gates nor Mullen suggested how long it might take to certify such readiness after Congress votes to repeal the law. But both also sought to impress upon the Committee another issue with regard to timing: The courts.

“Whatever risk there may be to repeal of this law, it is greatly mitigated by the thorough implementation plan included in this study, the time to carry out that plan, and effective, inspirational leadership,” said Mullen in his opening statement.

“Now, let me tell you what I believe,” continued Mullen. “I believe our troops and their families are ready for this. Most of them believe they serve, or have served, alongside gays and lesbians, and knowing matters a lot….

“I believe now is the time to act. I worry that unpredictable actions in the court could strike down the law at any time, precluding the orderly implementation plan we believe is necessary to mitigate risk,” said Mullen. “I also have no expectation that challenges to our national security are going to diminish in the near future, such that a more convenient time will appear.”

Copyright ©2010 Keen News Service. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

—  John Wright

Baldwin: ‘We will see brighter days ahead’

Congresswoman tells Black Tie audience not to give up hope; Wright applauds heroes who chose ‘never to hide a day in your lives’

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor nash@dallasvoice.com

Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin
Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin. To see a slideshow from Black Tie, go here.

During her keynote address at the 29th annual Black Tie Dinner on Saturday, Nov. 6, openly lesbian Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin wasted no time in acknowledging the apparent blow the Republican victories in this month’s midterm elections dealt to the LGBT community’s push for equality.

“I needed to get away. It’s been a tough week, a very painful week for many Americans,” Baldwin said.

But then she went on to reassure the more than 3,000 people packed into the Sheraton Dallas’ Lone Star Ballroom that “we will see brighter days ahead.”

Baldwin acknowledged that the community’s high hopes when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 have not, for the most part, been met. “There is frustration that we haven’t come far enough, fast enough, and I share that frustration.”

Recalling the last time that Republicans controlled Congress, Baldwin said efforts to secure LGBT equality were “rebuffed at every turn,” and she added that she is “not holding my breath” that things will be different this time, with Republicans controlling the U.S. House and the Senate nearly equally divided between the parties.

Although there is a possibility that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy could be repealed during the upcoming lame duck session, chances are “slim to none for now and for the foreseeable future” that passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and Baldwin’s own Domestic Partnership Benefits and Responsibilities Act and other LGBT-positive measures will happen.

“But that doesn’t mean that we will throw up our hands and give up,” Baldwin said, “because LGBT equality is a movement, not a moment in time.”

Baldwin’s theme of keeping up the fight and looking forward to better days reverberated throughout the evening, as Media Award winner Chely Wright related her life story to the crowd. She spoke of knowing from a young age that she was gay, and how she had struggled to keep her orientation a secret to try and earn — and later, preserve — her career in country music.

“Living two lives is quite a chore,” Wright said, as she talked about reaching a point where “I knew something had to give,” and the cold morning in 2006 when she went so far as putting the muzzle of a 9-mm pistol in her mouth.

But instead of pulling the trigger, Wright said, she prayed to God, as she had all her life. But this time, instead of praying for God to change her, she prayed that God would “give me a moment’s peace.”

Immediately, Wright continued, “oceans and oceans of peace washed over me,” and she knew that not only would she not take her own life, but that she would come out “as a gay woman, as a proud Christian and as an advocate for youth.”

Wright, who came put publicly only six months ago, acknowledged that others in the room had spent much longer fighting for LGBT equality.

“It is a bit of a strange thing to be honored by Black Tie Diner and this esteemed group of people. I look out and see so many of you who have not been able to or who have chosen not to hide a day in your lives, and to have you applaud for me is, well, it’s surreal,” she said.

“I look to you as heroes. … You are simply amazing to me. Thank you for leading the way,” she continued. “It is certainly not lost on me that you folks in this room tonight are the reason that the movement of equality, fairness and understanding continues to evolve.”

The evening began with an appearance by Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns, whose personal and passionate speech before the council last month about teen suicide went viral as a YouTube video and turned him into a national sensation.

Burns reminded the audience that teen suicide and bullying continues to affect LGBT youth at an alarmingly high rate, and led the crowd in a moment of silence in memory of LGBT youth who have died.

After Broadway star Gavin Creel, backed by the Turtle Creek Chorale, performed, the Rev. Carol West, pastor of Celebration Community Church in Fort Worth, came on stage to accept the Kuchling Humanitarian Award.

With a beaming smile, West recalled the early heroes of Dallas-Fort Worth’s LGBT community, reminding the crowd that “we stand on their shoulders” as the movement progresses. But, she added, the community leaders of today must also remember that the leaders of tomorrow “will someday stand on our shoulders.”

Employees of American Airlines were on hand to accept the Elizabeth Birch Equality Award on behalf of their company. Betty Young, director of Diverse Segment Marketing for the airline, said it was “a tremendous honor” for the company and its employees to receive the award.

“American Airlines has always been very involved in Black Tie Dinner and we certainly appreciate all they do. But for the company to be recognized this way, it caused tremendous excitement throughout the company and in each of us who touches this community,” Young said. “We are just honored beyond words.”

Ron Guillard, who co-chaired Black Tie Dinner this year with Nan Arnold, said organizers were “incredibly happy” with how the event turned out.

“And given the fact that we had a full ballroom, and considering how well the luxury auction went, we are feeling very optimistic about having a very generous amount to distribute to our beneficiaries this year,” he said. “We still have money to collect and some bills to pay, but I think this will be a very good year for our beneficiaries.”

Guillard noted that funds from the dinner will distributed to beneficiaries during a reception Dec. 9 at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel.

“We want to encourage the whole community to come out and be part of what is definitely the most important part of Black Tie each year,” Guillard said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 12, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

WATCH: Lubbock station flubs DADT; Texas Tech activist Nonnie Ouch says ‘It Gets Better’

Nonnie Ouch

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit put a stay on a lower court’s ruling allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

Explaining the stay,  Fox 34 in Lubbock said, “As of right now anyone who is gay and in the military must keep that sexual preference under wraps.”

Nonnie Ouch, a Texas Tech student from Dallas, does help explain any confusion in her “It Gets Better” video below. She describes Lubbock as “the second most conservative city in the country.”

Getting sexual orientation wrong is the least of the Fox story’s problems. They’re a little fuzzy on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” issues.

For example, they quote a Texas Tech law professor saying he had a long, distinguished career as a JAG and knows “don’t ask, don’t tell” quite well.

So well, in fact that he claimed that he defended the policy in the 1980s. Wow. A whole decade before anyone even dreamed up the discriminatory DADT policy, this “expert” was out there defending it. He must really, really like it.

Or maybe not so much because the professor calls the policy an anachronism.

But the military needs time to work out some privacy issues, he says. Well, it seems the only privacy that’s been violated is the privacy of gay and lesbian military personnel. Their privacy is regularly invaded and they are thrown out.

The former JAG and legal expert Fox quotes thinks the military, not the courts, should be making the policy. Interesting since it was Congress who created the policy that was signed into law by the president. And I don’t remember anyone criticizing Congress or President Bill Clinton about interfering with military policy when they instituted it. And isn’t the president the commander-in-chief?

Ouch’s comments to Fox are a lot clearer than those of the policy’s sort-of defender who doesn’t seem to like the policy much anymore.

“It’s a huge deal, I have friends that are serving in Afghanistan right now that are gay and I couldn’t wait to tell them the news,” she told the Fox station before the stay was placed on the ruling.

In her video, Ouch tells gay youth that if they can get by in Lubbock, you can get by anywhere else in the country.

—  David Taffet

Despite court order, the military is still enforcing ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ — at least in Texas

Omar Lopez, who was kicked out of the Navy in 2006 for “homosexual admission,” tried to re-enlist on Wednesday but was turned away at a recruiting office in Austin.

Sometime Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Department of Justice reportedly will request an emergency stay of Tuesday’s federal district court ruling ordering the military to halt enforcement of “don’t ask don’t tell.” And in the meantime, it would appear as though the Department of Defense is openly defying the ruling, perhaps putting the federal government in contempt of court. The New York Times reported Thursday:

But with the ultimate fate of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule still unclear, some celebrations are being delayed.

With a briefcase full of commendations under his arm, Omar Lopez walked into an Austin, Tex., recruiting office Wednesday. Mr. Lopez, 29, had served nearly five years in the Navy. He was honorably discharged in 2006 for “homosexual admission,” according to documents he carried. He wanted to re-enlist.

But recruiters turned him away hastily, saying they had no knowledge of any injunction or any change in military policy.

“I like the civilian world, but I miss it,” Mr. Lopez said of the military, as he arrived with a worker for Get Equal, a gay rights advocacy group. “I feel lost without it.”

The NYT report prompted a letter from the attorney for Log Cabin Republicans, which brought the lawsuit, to the Department of Justice:

“Please let us know immediately what steps the government has taken to communicate the terms and requirements of the Court’s order to military personnel, including field commanders and military recruiting offices, who are in a position to violate the requirements of the injunction under the cover of ignorance of its terms or existence,” wrote LCR attorney Dan Woods.

—  John Wright