To Fight for LGBTQ Rights Today, Look to the Past.
Remarks made to Stonewall Delaware, August 13, 2022.
A pioneer for LGBTQ rights, and someone on whose shoulders I stood, is Delaware’s own Barbara Gittings who, with Frank Kameny, led marches protesting the ban on gays in the military in the 1960's.
When she passed in 2007, I asked my staff at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network how many knew who she was. Only a few hands shot up. That is why I wrote Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because we need to know our history and apply past lessons to present challenges.
Michelle Benecke and I co-founded Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in 1993 to help service members caught in the crosshairs of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and build a movement to repeal the law.
In 1993, the public, a bipartisan majority in Congress and 90% of the military opposed gays serving openly. By 2010 when the Senate voted to repeal the law, 78% of the public supported gays serving openly as did 70% of service members. That is a massive swing in public attitude, but it didn’t happen by chance. Michelle and I built a movement to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by defending our clients, telling their stories, chipping away at the prejudices upholding the ban, and laying a new foundation for equality. Michelle once said, “We’re going to be fleas on the butt of the Pentagon” because we were nimble and smart and couldn’t be swatted away.
The Pentagon discharged 2–4 service members every day for being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Some of our clients included Corporal Kevin Blaesing who was turned in by the base psychologist for asking what it meant to be gay; West Point Cadet Nikki Galvan who was disenrolled because she came out in her personal diary; and PFC Shannon Emery who faced discharge and was accused of being a lesbian in retaliation for her reporting an attempted rape. We won that case and many others.
The first case that really shifted public opinion against the ban was the murder of PFC Barry Winchell at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in 1999 by his roommate and another soldier because he was believed to be gay. Because of our intervention, the Army couldn’t cover up the murder or the motives. Both soldiers were convicted. We convinced the President to issue an executive order on hate crimes in the military, a full decade before Congress passed national hate crimes legislation.
The second set of cases that shifted momentum in public opinion was the discharge of 32 Arabic linguists for being gay after 9/11. Congressman Barney Frank called the discharge of gay linguists “the new height of stupidity.”
We laid the foundation brick by brick. We started lobby days in 2003. We asked Rep. Marty Meehan to introduce the first bill to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2005, flanked by two retired gay generals and an admiral who I helped come out in The New York Times. The Military Readiness Enhancement Act was reintroduced in 2007 and 2009, each time garnering even greater support as the momentum grew.
In 2009, the White House asked me how to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I told them to do it only when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates were ready to stand behind it. Having full military support for repeal was essential. They testified in favor of repeal before the Senate in February 2010. Mullen said that repeal was about the integrity of the gay service member who was forced to lie and the integrity of an institution that required lying as a condition of service. On a Saturday, December 18, 2010, during a lame duck session, 8 Republicans joined all Democrats in support of repeal. It also happened to be my birthday.
Today, the LGBT community faces new challenges, like the “don’t say gay” law in Florida. Some say the law is a political stunt by Governor Ron DeSantis, but the reality is that 51%-60% of the public and a bipartisan majority in the state legislature support the ban. As with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” advocates must present data and stories to change the hearts and minds of those who support the law, but may not understand its practical ramifications.
What is a teacher supposed to do when a student talks about his fun weekend at the beach with his two moms or little Bobby expresses attraction to another boy? There is good data that shows that the “don’t say gay” laws, just like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, increase anti-gay harassment, assault, and derogatory comments. Fair-minded voters oppose bullying and violence and in time will support repeal of the don’t say gay and anti-trans laws clobbering us right now.
The future, I believe, is bright, but it is not a given, and so we must redouble our efforts. We must give our time and money so that we are not erased from history. We must defend our democracy because without it, discourse dies. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” shows that we can win big fights, bipartisanship can prevail, and equality is possible.