Belkin added academic heft to DADT repeal

  • by Chuck Colbert
  • Wednesday June 22, 2011
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The LGBT community nationwide stands at the threshold of American history.

Full repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" – the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian service members – is expected by year's end as the four service branches complete training the troops to implement a policy change that's been almost 18 years in the making. All that remains then is for the president, defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman to certify troop readiness and for Congress to complete its 60-day review period.

"The forthcoming DADT repeal victory that we are about to celebrate is going to be one of the great civil rights triumphs in the community's history," said Aaron Belkin, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University.

"The nation's largest employer has changed its mind about gay people," he explained recently during a telephone interview. While "savoring" the moment, Belkin said, "we should think about how long it took to get here and what that means."

Belkin, 45, who also serves as director of the Palm Center, part of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, is one of six individual community grand marshals in Sunday's San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade. His presence is likely to underscore the tireless efforts of many activists and organizations in pressing President Barack Obama and Congress to repeal DADT. This is the third year in a row that the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee has spotlighted lift-the-ban efforts. Retired out Navy Commander Zoe Dunning (2010) and Lieutenant Dan Choi (2009), also served as parade grand marshals.

For his part as an academic and not an activist, the openly gay Belkin has played a key role in the repeal endeavor. For the past 12 years, he helped dismantle the rationale for DADT by publishing studies and breaking news stories that show that discrimination hurts the military and has financial and human costs.

The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times , NPR, CNN, and national network news have covered Belkin's research widely.

Public education

As part of its work, the Palm Center also conducted a years-long public education campaign.

"Getting the public and the military to understand that discrimination is bad for the armed forces," he said, "that was our strategic role."

Several times a year, the Palm Center released research and data – some new piece of information – to drive home the idea that discrimination is bad for the military and that inclusion is good.

For example, "We were the first to break the story of Arab linguists being fired for being gay," said Belkin.

That started bringing home the point to the general public; the Pentagon was spending thousands of dollars to train these highly specialized linguists, who were being drummed out of the military. Over the years public support for DADT repeal has grown, hitting near 78 percent in a 2010 CNN poll.

Additionally, the Palm Center demonstrated that many United States allies, including Australia, Israel, and the United Kingdom, among others, already allowed openly gay service without experiencing difficulties in unit cohesion or combat readiness – the two most frequent canards used by repeal opponents, especially those in Congress.

As it reached out to the military itself, the Palm Center produced signatures from 104 retired generals and admirals, saying discrimination hurt the military. That made national headlines.

The Palm Center also drew attention to a blue-ribbon commission report, which found the true cost of investigating and discharging gay men and lesbians was much higher than reported by the Pentagon.

And yet Belkin is quick to acknowledge the team effort of others in achieving DADT repeal.

Legal defense and litigation, he said, was critical, along with an "inside Washington game" that included lobbying Congress and meeting with White House officials.

Belkin praised "a grassroots field component," with the Human Rights Campaign at the "moderate end," working in swing states like Ohio where veterans met last year with then-Senator George Voinovich (R). The senator voted in favor of DADT repeal last December, in one of his last acts before his retirement.

Belkin also said "the more aggressive version" of grassroots activism, namely Choi and GetEqual's protests in front of the White House, was "very important."

Another critical component, Belkin said, was organizing active duty service members and veterans to speak out.

Long history

The current DADT military policy and federal law spans nearly 18 years. In 1993, after facing stiff resistance from military top brass and Congress for outright repeal – which he promised during his presidential campaign – President Bill Clinton signed into law a compromise measure that was supposed to allow gays in the armed forces as long as they stayed in the closet.

The policy, however, has been costly and deemed by many to be a failure. More than 14,300 military personnel have been discharged under DADT. A 2010 report from the Williams Institute estimated that enforcing DADT over the years has cost U.S. taxpayers more than half a billion dollars.

But drumming gay soldiers out of the military dates back 233 years to the American Revolutionary War when the first gay soldier got the boot. As early as March 11, 1778, the Continental Army kicked out Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin, who is "the first known solider to be dismissed from the U.S. military for homosexuality," according to the late Randy Shilts in his book Conduct Unbecoming (1995). Enslin's offenses were sodomy and perjury.

"Two hundred and thirty-three years is a long time," said Belkin, explaining his interest in the armed forces began early in life, "building model airplanes and watching TV shows on the military." In college, he added, "I started taking classes because I couldn't understand why anyone would voluntarily volunteer to kill people."

After undergraduate studies at Brown University, Belkin, who grew up in a suburb outside of Cleveland, went on to earn a doctorate in military studies at UC Berkeley. There, "I realized a strong connection between my gay and lesbian interests and military interests," he said.

Belkin is currently working on a book, How We Won , which will detail the story of the DADT repeal campaign, including lessons for other progressive movements.

Even though lifting the ban on gays in the military is imminent, he said, "There is still a lot of work to be done. We don't have inclusion for transgender service members. We don't have equal benefits so straight troops get housing and benefits for their spouses" while gay troops do not.

Nonetheless, DADT repeal is a big deal. "The Christian right was precisely correct when it said gays in the military was really a line in the sand, that once crossed would pave the way to other victories," Belkin said.

The fight over repeal was all about the broader cultural landscape.

"What that means concretely," he explained, "is that most of the countries that allow marriage equality lifted their military bans first. Consequently, Belkin said, "Achieving marriage equality is now more viable" in the U.S.