President Barack Obama used his first official State of the Union speech Jan. 27 as an opportunity to call for the repeal of the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers. The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was implemented by the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in his own failed bid to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly.
The response from the LGBT community was mixed, ranging from skepticism to optimism.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do," Obama said to loud applause, mainly from Democrats.
More than 13,500 servicemembers have fallen victim to DADT since it was created in 1994, according to SLDN, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
This week, Congressional hearings on the issue are expected to start — the first such hearings in 17 years. In the interim, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly will announce suspension of DADT discharges that are based on third-party allegations.
Openly gay Chicago Ald. Tom Tunney was at the speech, as the guest of U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley. He was seated above and behind the president, so he had a bird's eye view of the fidgeting Republicans. "It was mind boggling," Tunney said. "It was just awesome to hear the words, but the chemistry and dynamism of the room was amazing. There were so many elected officials and the Supreme Court justices. As a listener and student of politics, it was more intriguing to see the non-verbals, the reactions and cynicism of the Republicans."
Tunney said it was an honor to be there, after having heard so many Obama speeches over the years, including at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He said he "looks forward to having more visits to D.C., for substantive discussion" on issues that impact the LGBT community.
"It was heartening to hear President Obama mention that he would work with Congress to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell," said Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer USA retired, in an email to Windy City Times. "I would be honored to have a Commander in Chief, acting as one, acting as President Truman, and pushing for the repeal of a law which has created two classes of people, one open and affirming and the other second class, secretive and disrespected. It is past time when the dedicated commitment of gay and lesbian servicemembers is acknowledged and celebrated by allowing them to serve in the military with full appreciation of their humanity."
"While the President promised that DADT would come to an end 'this year,' he did not provide specifics -- and the White House still has not released a plan to kill it. That's unacceptable," said Lt. Dan Choi, an Army lieutenant fighting his discharge under DADT. "I served in the Army for a decade under [ DADT ] -- an immoral policy that forces American soldiers to lie about their sexual orientation. Worse, it forces others to tolerate deception. As I learned at West Point, deception and lies poison a unit and cripple a fighting force."
"While we know the State of the Union speech aims to present broad visions, the next time President Obama speaks to or about our community, he must provide a concrete blueprint for his leadership and action moving forward," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "this includes his willingness to stop the discharges happening on his watch until Congress can fulfill its responsibility to overturn the law."
Obama is perhaps responding to increased pressure from LGBT activists and Democratic Party donors who are withholding their support of Dems until they see more dramatic progress on LGBT issues. Even though Obama did sign into law the gay-inclusive federal hate-crimes law, and lifted the HIV+ travel ban, LGBT activists and leaders are seeking more progress, and lifting DADT would send a strong signal that Obama is willing to fight the more controversial battles for gay rights.
The President also mentioned the hate-crimes law in his speech: "We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate." And he included HIV and AIDS among the list of international causes the U.S. is helping.
Obama can't lift the military ban alone, and it remains to be seen how much willpower exists in the House and Senate, where many incumbents are facing tough challenges in the mid-term elections.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said the DADT policy is "working," and the ban should stay. In a statement that could be taken as conflicting, Fox News reported that McCain praised all servicemembers while clearly not backing those who are gay: "I am immensely proud of, and thankful for, every American who wears the uniform of our country, especially at a time of war, and I believe it would be a mistake to repeal the policy."
"We applaud President Obama tonight for his call to Congress to repeal [ DADT ] this year, setting the stage for the beginning of the end of DADT," SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis stated in a press release. "The climate is ripe for repeal, but the fight is far from over."
Human Rights Campaign used the speech to announce a "Voices of Honor" campaign to push for the end of DADT.
The Military Readiness Enhancement Act, being pushed by Iraq War veteran Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Penn., would replace DADT with open service by qualified lesbian and gay servicemembers.
Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart stated: "We have heard promises before about ending 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and we welcome the President's statement tonight that the time has finally come to fulfill that promise. Very little has changed since Lambda Legal represented Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer 18 years ago after she was discharged for being a lesbian. Changing this discriminatory policy is long overdue."
"Unfortunately, the President failed to address the government's discrimination against same-sex couples in his speech," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. "The President spoke about the concerns of Americans across the country, from unemployment to access to good schools and adequate healthcare. Millions of gay and lesbian Americans share these same concerns and struggles, but also bear the extra burden of exclusion from marriage and the denial of legal protection in the workplace and at home."
"Although brief, his language was plain, his message was clear, and the outline of his strategy was smart," said Alexander Nicholson, founder and Executive Director of Servicemembers United, a group for gay and lesbian troops and veterans and their allies. "This effort will indeed be a challenge for our community, and the resistance of those who support discrimination in our armed forces should not be underestimated."
Nicholson is also a plantiff in Log Cabin Republicans vs. the United States of America, a challenge to DADT filed after the Supreme Court's decision in Lawrence v. Texas. Nicholson is a former U.S. Army Human Intelligence Collector who speaks multiple languages, including Arabic; he was fired because of DADT six months after 9/11. Another injured party in the case, listed as 'John Doe,' serves in the Armed Forces and would face a discharge if his identity were revealed. Log Cabin said "in an alarming contradiction to his stated public policy position, President Obama has instructed his Justice Department to fight" this lawsuit.
The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law has released a research brief that updates estimates of the number of LGB men and women serving in the U.S. military along with the cost of the DADT policy.
"Despite official policy requiring that lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals remain silent about their sexual orientation, data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that an estimated 66,000 LGB men and women are serving in the U.S. military," about 2.2% of personnel, said the study's author, Dr. Gary J. Gates. About 13,000 LGB people are serving on active duty ( comprising 0.9% of all active duty personnel ) while nearly 53,000 are serving in the guard and reserve forces ( 3.4% ) .
The study updates estimates of the cost of DADT policy made by the General Accountability Office and the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Ending DADT "will save a substantial amount of taxpayer dollars since estimates suggest that the policy has cost more than half a billion dollars," Gates said.
The study also found that while women comprise only about 14% of active duty personnel, they comprise more than 43% of LGB men and women serving on active duty. The military spends an estimated $22,000 to $43,000 per person to replace those discharged under DADT.
The day after his speech, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the University of Tampa, and student Hector Flores asked about same-sex marriages: "what are you doing now to put in motion so that same-sex couples and homosexuals are treated as equal citizens of the United States, i.e., same-sex marriages and the thousand-plus benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy after marriage?"
Obama responded: "Look, as I said last night, my belief is, is that a basic principle in our Constitution is that if you're obeying the law, if you're following the rules, that you should be treated the same, regardless of who you are. ( Applause. ) I think that principle applies to gay and lesbian couples. So at the federal level, one of the things that we're trying to do is to make sure that partnerships are recognized for purposes of benefits so that hospital visitation, for example, is something that is permitted; that Social Security benefits or pension benefits or others, that same-sex couples are recognized in all those circumstances.
"I think that we've got to -- we actually have an opportunity of passing a law that's been introduced in Congress right now, and my hope is this year we can get it done, just for federal employees and federal workers. A lot of companies, on their own, some of the best-run companies have adopted these same practices. I think it's the right thing to do and it makes sense for us to take a leadership role in ensuring that people are treated the same. ( Applause. )
"Look, if you are -- regardless of your personal opinions, the notion that somebody who's working really hard for 30 years can't take their death benefits and transfer them to the person that they love the most in the world and who has supported them all their lives, that just doesn't seem fair. It doesn't seem right. ( Applause. ) And I think it's the right thing to do."
Report details at: www.law.ucla.edu/williamsinsitute
Also see www.sldn.org and www.hrc.org/VoicesOfHonor.