Don't Ask Don't Tell Photo by Flickr user Samuel King Jr

The End of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

A letter from Ira Hirschfield on a victory for equality and acceptance

Ending gay and lesbian discrimination in our military was a step forward for all Americans on the path to building a more equal society.

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The U.S. Senate’s December 18, 2010 vote to repeal the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a victory for thousands of gay and lesbian Americans who want to serve their country openly. But more than that, it was a victory for all Americans–the culmination of a vital chapter in our nation’s continuing efforts to expand the circle of freedom.

A great many people and organizations had a hand in achieving this victory–including Haas Jr. Fund grantee Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, along with other gay rights advocacy and legal organizations, elected officials, street activists, courageous active and discharged soldiers, and military brass. Each played an essential role.

But the end of DADT never would have arrived (or would have come much later) without the persistent, grinding work of the Michael Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a Fund grantee for 11 years.

Setting the Record Straight

When “Don’t Ask” was enacted in 1993, the homophobia behind it was overt. But the policy’s proponents justified what they were doing with the argument that open service by gay and lesbian service members would impair unit cohesion and military readiness. Like so many other policies based in prejudice, there was no proof to back this assertion, but its endless repetition by elected officials, military leaders and anti-gay forces gave it the force of fact.

In 1999, Dr. Aaron Belkin and a handful of associates decided to set the record straight. Their first high-profile move: recruiting two former top-level national security officials, one from the Clinton administration and the other from the Reagan White House, to sign their names to an article that Dr. Belkin submitted to the New York Times. The article, entitled “Military Tolerance Works,” cited research showing that “the sexual orientation of members of a military unit is not a factor in its performance.”

When Dr. Belkin asked the Haas, Jr. Fund for support that year, he promised he would continue to chip away at the military readiness argument. Back then, repeal seemed a lifetime away. But with the support of the Haas, Jr. Fund and others, Dr. Belkin and the Palm Center did what they promised for 11 years. They churned out more facts, produced more reports and served up more experts to say essentially the same thing over and over again. Their goal: to ensure that the public and policymakers could base their decisions about “Don’t Ask” on facts and not fear or emotion.

Among the Palm Center’s signature contributions to the debate were the studies it commissioned on the impact of openly gay service members on military readiness in Israel, Canada, the UK and Australia. Based on more than 100 interviews, Palm Center researchers found that not one person in these countries had observed any impact or any effect at all that undermined military performance, readiness or cohesion.

Making an Impact

As the debate on “Don’t Ask” continued, the Palm Center’s research was cited on the floor of Congress and repeated by newspapers and radio and television stations throughout the world. Its scholars delivered briefings and lectures at the British Ministry of Defense, the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Naval Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, the Army War College and the National Defense University.

While supporters of the discriminatory policy continued to harp on the military readiness issue, their appeals failed to resonate with the public and, more importantly, within the military itself.

From the beginning, the Palm Center understood that in a struggle like the one to end “Don’t Ask,” the messenger is as important as the message. For this reason, the Palm Center’s staff have rarely been front and center. Instead, Dr. Belkin and his colleagues painstakingly recruited military leaders to speak to other military leaders and the public. Starting with less than a handful of former brass, it built a roster of more than 200 retired admirals and generals calling for the repeal of “Don’t Ask,” including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili.

Slowly, slowly, all of this hard work paid off. While supporters of the discriminatory policy continued to harp on the military readiness issue, their appeals failed to resonate with the public and, more importantly, within the military itself. In December 2010, the Palm Center’s dogged determination was rewarded. Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. Senate agreed that repeal was good for the country and for the military. At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we couldn’t have agreed more.

The Struggle Continues

But the struggle didn’t end in 2010. Gay and lesbian Americans continue to live in a nation where they can be fired because of their sexual orientation, where they are more likely than any other minority to be victims of bias-motivated violence, and where (except in a small number of states) they are deprived of the legal and economic protections of marriage.

The Haas, Jr. Fund remains as committed as ever to the work of righting these wrongs as part of a broader effort to support initiatives and organizations that advance and protect fundamental rights and opportunities for all people. In addition to our work in the area of gay and lesbian rights, we’re committed to promoting equal opportunities for immigrants to become fully engaged citizens; and to developing new partnerships to help ensure that education can provide a path out of poverty for people from low-income communities.

Expanding the circle of freedom in this country is a continuing struggle. On the same day that the Senate voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it kept the circle closed to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to this country as children and who now want the opportunity to contribute to their communities and society. The defeat of the DREAM Act showed how important it is to keep fighting the fight for equal rights and opportunities for all, so that America can live up to its best ideals.

December 18th, 2010 was an historic day for America. It was a day to celebrate, and the Haas, Jr. Fund wants to express our sincere thanks and congratulations to our partner of 11 years, the Palm Center, as well as the thousands upon thousands of people who (visibly or not) made the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” possible. All of you helped the nation take a giant step forward on the long road to full equality of gay Americans.

At the same time, the Fund also wants to recognize and honor the work of our other partners in all of the issue areas we work on–from gay and lesbian rights to immigrant rights and education. If the struggle to end “Don’t Ask” taught us anything, it’s that building social movements to advance and protect people’s rights and opportunities is very difficult work. We celebrate all of the people who are struggling everyday to keep the circle of freedom growing ever wider. Their work continues, and so does ours.