Political Notes: Repeal of DADT hits 10-year milestone
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Ten years ago Monday (September 20), the U.S. military's homophobic "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was ended, ushering in a decade of open military service for LGBTQ enlistees and officers. While implementation of the rule over the 18 years it was in effect upended the careers and lives of roughly 14,000 service members, its repeal was a watershed moment in the federal fight for LGBTQ rights.
"I think one thing I reflected on a lot during my actual seven years in service following repeal, immediately a generation no longer had any concept of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' I had to remind myself that was kind of the goal," said gay veteran Joseph C. Rocha, who was a vocal advocate for DADT repeal.
Rocha came out of the closet at 17 and, after being kicked out of his home by his father, enlisted in the Navy. He served as a bomb dog handler in the Persian Gulf only to be discharged in 2007 under DADT due to his sexual orientation, having been hazed by fellow service members who suspected he was gay.
Once the policy was rescinded, Rocha enrolled at the Marine Officer Candidate School then served as a judge advocate. After satisfying his eight-year commitment with the United States Marine Corps, Rocha left Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to move to Escondido outside San Diego in order to run against Republican Congressman Darrell Issa for his 50th Congressional District seat next year.
"It made me feel ancient but also made me proud and happy to see an entire generation had no concept of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' If you reminded them of it, they would be shocked," Rocha, who at one time lived in San Francisco, told the Bay Area Reporter last week in a phone interview.
Another former resident of the city, C. Dixon Osburn, relocated last year at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to Washington, D.C. with his husband, designer JR Hodder, and spent the following months writing a book about his involvement in the fight to repeal DADT. He self-published his "Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' September 7 via Amazon.
Osburn and attorney Michelle Benecke, a former Army captain, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in 1993 shortly after former President Bill Clinton first proposed DADT. They fielded countless calls from men and women in the military who faced harassment despite DADT.
"Today, it has been 10 years of young men and women serving our nation who never had to face a law of discrimination like DADT. To me, that is remarkable," said Osburn, who hopes to embark on a book tour later this year. "During that time the military has created a generation of new leaders; I can't wait to see what they do."
Officially known as the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" directive and colloquially referred to as DADT, the policy that went into effect on December 21, 1993 was an attempt by Clinton to fulfill his campaign promise to allow LGBTQ people to serve openly in the military. But congressional leaders and military brass vehemently opposed doing so.
A compromise was struck, negotiated by gay then-congressman Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, for the directive that basically said as long as service members didn't speak about their sexual orientation they would be left alone. But once implemented, it did nothing to curtail the drumming out of LGBTQ people from the armed forces.
The policy would come to be seen by many LGBTQ people as a betrayal by Clinton, and DADT became the focus of legislative and legal fights to get it overturned. It was a halting process with repeated hurdles thrown up in Congress to thwart the calls for its repeal.
President Barack Obama came into office in 2009 committed to scrapping DADT. But the deliberative former U.S. senator from Illinois sought to have cooperation from Pentagon officials and Congress in order to do so. It would take some procedural maneuvering to break a Republican filibuster in the Senate to achieve his goal.
Following a dramatic and eloquent speech, Obama on December 22, 2010 signed the DADT repeal legislation. The next year the country's top defense officials submitted a one-page written certification to Congress on Friday, July 22, declaring that the military was ready to implement it.
After a required 60-day waiting period stipulated by the bill approved by Congress, DADT repeal became a reality on September 20, 2011. Despite opponents' predictions it would destroy unit cohesion among the troops, the presence of out LGBTQ service members had little negative impact within the military.
"We were all happy to see no major issues when 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal was implemented," said Rocha. "I remember how many lies have been told by advocates of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' of all the chaos that would ensue, of all the harm to troop order and discipline that it would cause."
In 2017 former President Donald Trump tried to ban trans people from serving in the armed forces, announcing his policy via Twitter. It led to another round of lawsuits filed on behalf of trans service members and those who desired to enlist. In January President Joe Biden signed an executive order allowing transgender troops to once again serve in the military.
"I am hopeful the lifting of the ban on transgender service members will stick this time. The military will have four years to acculturate behind lifting this ban," said Osburn. "The Pentagon did not support Trump's tweet that lifted the Obama policy. I think the Pentagon and services will be even further in support of transgender troops. That said, we saw what the prior administration did on all sorts of LGBT issues. I don't think we have emerged from this neo-fascist era that is upon us from some members of the Trump wing of the Republican Party, so I think one has to remain vigilant."
Events organized by the Modern Military Association of America, the successor nonprofit to SLDN that now advocates on behalf of LGBTQ service members and their families, will be taking place in Washington, D.C. throughout Monday to mark 10 years without DADT. A moment of silence to honor past and present out military members will take place online via Facebook Live from 5 to 5:15 a.m. (All times Pacific.)
At 6 a.m. a wreath will be laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. It will be followed by a 9 a.m. memorial service at the gravesite of the late gay technical sergeant Leonard Matlovich. The onetime resident of San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro neighborhood — a plaque is affixed to the building at Castro and 18th Streets where he resided in the late 1970s and early 1980s — served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
Matlovich became an overnight media sensation when a photo of him in uniform appeared on the cover of Time magazine in September 1975 underneath the headline "I Am A Homosexual" at a time when most LGBT people feared to come out of the closet. He died due to AIDS in 1988 one month shy of his 45th birthday and is buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington.
A virtual celebration of DADT's repeal will take place from 4 to 5 p.m. and feature former military leaders and LGBTQ service member advocates. Register online.
Rocha will be on Michelangelo Signorile's radio show on SiriusXM Progress 127, (noon to 3 p.m.) to discuss the DADT repeal anniversary. He will also take part in the virtual commemoration the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus is hosting.
Despite the celebratory moment Rocha cautioned the LGBTQ community needs to be ever vigilant in protecting the rights it has won and must continue to press for additional protections at the federal level. Key is seeing the Equality Act, a sweeping LGBTQ rights bill currently stuck in the U.S. Senate, be sent to Biden's desk for his signature to become law.
"I would say I think the LGBTQ community still does not have the legal protections at the federal level for us to rest on the repeal of DADT. We see that a lot in the data that supports the Equality Act movement," said Rocha. "The current ban on abortion in Texas is just one example of how settled law, particularly in that case, and in our case in a sense at a lower level, where we are provided constitutional protections are often still not enough.
"I would say that we can never take for granted any fight is truly over," he added. "We always have to keep an eye on progress, because it will slip backwards really quick."
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