Citizenship and the Armed Forces:
Why Repealing of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Was Critical for LGBTQ Equality
An address to the American Legion Kenneth H. Nash Post 8, Washington D.C. on Veterans Day, 2021:
I would like to reflect on how inclusion strengthens our nation as we mark the tenth anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the law enacted in 1993 that banned lesbian, gay and bisexual service members from coming out to anyone, anywhere, anytime, including one’s parents, clergy, colleagues, friends, and doctors.
Today, as we honor those who are serving or have served our nation, I would like you to consider this — that the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” allowed gay Americans, for the first time, to be embraced as full citizens. Historically, citizenship has been tied directly to military service.
When our country was founded, only white males had the right to vote, own property, and serve in elected office. In 1792, Congress enacted a statute that required every “free, able-bodied white male citizen” to join the militia. Blacks were not considered citizens and not allowed to join.
In the infamous Dred Scott case in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that slaves could not be citizens, even those who had been freed and lived in free states, in part because the 1792 statute denied them the opportunity to serve.
Civil war ensued. At first, even the Union Army refused the service of freedmen. As the need grew, the Union relented and recruited black men to join the Army in segregated units.
In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation not only freed the slaves, it expressly granted them the right to serve. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union. “Nothing else made Negro citizenship conceivable, but the record of the Negro soldier as a fighter,” said noted scholar W.E.B. DuBois at the time.
The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, repudiated Dred Scott. “All persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens of the United States,” the Amendment says. It also provides that no state shall deprive any person due process or equal protection under the law. The Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection and due process is firmly rooted in a history that connects military service to citizenship.
African Americans continued to distinguish themselves militarily in World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were among the bravest of fighter pilots in our nation’s history. Yet, segregation persisted until, in 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 requiring integration.
This was before Brown v. Board of Education. It was before the desegregation of busses, water fountains, swimming pools, and hotels. The military led the way.
The civil rights struggle for African Americans isn’t the same as the fight for LGBTQ civil rights. There are important differences. Both histories, though, raise important parallels connecting military service, citizenship, and equality.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” denied lesbian, gay and bisexual service members their fundamental rights as American citizens. The Pentagon discharged 14,000 servicemembers for being gay under “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” a rate of 2–4 every day.
Marine Corporal Kevin Blaesing was turned in by his psychologist. Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was turned in by a chaplain’s assistant. West Point cadet Nikki Galvan was disenrolled because of what she had written in a personal diary. A father showed up to his daughter’s base and outed her to her commander. Fortunately, he was yelling in Korean and no one knew what he had said.
The clients I represented faced harassment, threats, and assault. Private First Class Barry Winchell was murdered by fellow soldiers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in 1999 because they thought he was gay. Under “Don’t ask, don’t tell” one couldn’t report the harassment because doing so might expose that you were in fact gay, leading to one’s discharge. Over time, we demonstrated to the public, the Pentagon and Congress that it was not the gay service member, it was “Don’t ask, don’t tell” that created an environment inimical to good order, discipline and morale.
There was no other law in America that prohibited citizens from identifying themselves and speaking up on their own behalf. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rendered 60,000 LGBT troops invisible and left deep wounds for our one million LGBT veterans.
Don’t ask, don’t tell was repealed ten years ago with bipartisan support in Congress thanks to the leadership of Admiral Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, Iraq veteran Representative Patrick Murphy, the Commander-in-Chief President Barack Obama, and so many more. The repeal did not happen overnight. If you would like to understand the 17-year strategy I implemented that led to repeal, I encourage you to read my book Mission Possible. It is about the consequences of a government that tries to muzzle its citizens, and a triumphant story of coming out and building a movement of good will and bipartisanship.
In an editorial after Congress voted for repeal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel captured the significance of the moment:“When Obama signs a bill repealing the military’s ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule,” it said, “it will be an event as significant for gay rights as President Harry Truman’s order integrating the United States military was for black Americans.”
In the years that have followed repeal, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality and against LGBT employment discrimination. Eric Fanning became the first openly gay Army Secretary. Pete Buttigieg, an Afghanistan war vet, became the first Senate-confirmed openly gay Cabinet member after being the first openly gay man to win a Presidential nomination contest in Iowa. Now retired Major General Tammy Smith became the first open lesbian to be nominated and confirmed as a flag officer. The lesson is this: when the barriers to full opportunity fall, extraordinary individuals emerge to make our nation a better place. That is the story of what full citizenship promises.