U.S. Senator Roland Burris, D-Ill., is a seasoned politician who considers himself a friend of the gay community. He's a co-sponsor of the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Act; supports civil unions; and is an advocate of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ( DADT ) , the only federal law that requires an organization, like the military, to fire openly gay and lesbian people. The junior senator recently sat down with Windy City Times to discuss the status of DADT.
Windy City Times: You have stated that you are a friend and ally of the LGBT community. You've also said you had some conservative positions on LGBT issues in the past. How did your perspective on LGBT issues evolve?
Roland Burris: My support of the gay community goes all the way back to when I was attorney general. Fortunately a lot of us grow into a position of understanding all of theses issues within the gay community. I was fortunate to have gays and lesbians on my staff. And, together, we discussed a lot of theses issues, which helped me come to where I am now. It helped me move from a very conservative position [ on LGBT issues ] to a very understanding position. During my AG years I helped make crimes against people, based on their sexual orientation, hate crimes. I've been in the wars and in the battles with you all.
WCT: A lot of people in favor of repealing [ DADT ] say that President Obama is falling short on the issuethat he's a lot of talk and no action. Your thoughts?
Roland Burris: Well, President Obama has made his position very clear on the issue. He's made it very clear that he cannot tell Congress what to do. And, he's left it to Congress to deal with this. Right now, in the U.S. Senate, we don't have the 60 votes we need to get this repealed. Even though we don't have the support we need just yet, we're hoping we can get an immediate moratorium on Don't Ask, Don't Tell so that there won't be any more discharges of gay soldiers. We still don't know if we have the support to get a moratorium passed. This means we're facing a very uphill battle.
WCT: If, at some point, there is enough support to repeal DADTat least 60 votesdo you anticipate a filibuster on the Republican front?
Roland Burris: We have to get more Democrats on board first. This is not a partisan issue in that respect. It is a personal issue, as I perceive it. Fortunately, some people on the Republican side, like John McCain, are coming around on the issue. You know, I was there when the chairman of the joint chiefs said that Don't Ask, Don't Tell was wrong, that it is dishonest to have our soldiers lie about who they are, while they're serving and protecting our country. It is hypocritical, on our part, to ask service members do this [ conceal their sexual orientation ] .
WCT: If DADT is, in fact, hypocritical, what do you say to your colleagues and other high-ranking members of the military who oppose repealing the law, or are still on the fence about whether or not to repeal it? Do you point out to them that their position is a hypocritical one?
Roland Burris: I do talk to them about it and I try to respect their positions on the matter. A lot of them say that this needs to be studied more and that there needs to be a right time to take action, if any, on the issue. I hear a lot of people say "If it's going to get done, it's got to get done right." Now, I don't what there is to "get right" on this, we've just got to do it. But, I do respect their positions.
WCT: With respect to the argument of waiting a year or longer to study this issue, there has been some pushback from folks who favor repealing DADT. Specifically, Lt. Dan Choi, the infantry officer and Arabic linguist in the United States Army, who served in combat in the Iraq war and received a discharge letter from the military after he publically revealed himself to be gay. I spoke with him by phone and he said that waiting any longer to repeal DADT is just "convenient politics since there is an election coming up in 2010." Do you think that waiting longer to repeal DADT is "convenient politics"?
Roland Burris: I hope the community isn't confused about what can be done here. This is a major controversial issue, especially since we are in the middle of two wars. I think the president, for example, has really stepped out on this issue. He has said that he is for repealing it. We have to be understanding of these different positions so that we don't turn everyone off and then not get anything. So, that time period of waiting is to let them get something back in the compromise process so that we can get the law changed. I'm just asking the [ LGBT ] community not to be too outraged that it hasn't gotten done at this point.
WCT: It goes without saying that this is a controversial issue. But, given the fact that we are mired in two wars, and that we need as many capable and willing soldiers as possible, doesn't it seem counterintuitive not to take swifter action on repealing DADT? Couldn't President Obama issue an executive orderstop-loss authorityto halt the enforcement of DADT?
Roland Burris: That kind of executive order could have a lot of repercussions, and we don't know what those are yet.
WCT: Other presidents have issued similar executive orders, including George H. Bush during the Gulf conflict. President Truman, in 1947, issued an executive order to desegregate the military so that African Americans could serve without fear of discrimination…
Roland Burris: And, when Truman did that there were a lot of repercussions against Black soldiers. I'm talking about horrible things: hate crimes, all those stories of mistreatment against African-Americans. Fortunately, that decision by Truman prevailed.
WCT: So then, we know that repercussions are inevitable. We know that hate crimes against gays, African-Americans, even women continue to occur, albeit not as much as they used to. We also know that we need battle-ready troops ASAP. Again, why can't the President use his stop-loss authority to, at least, temporarily halt the enforcement of DADT?
Roland Burris: All I can say is that this will take time. The President is for it, but it's going to take time. Look at how long it has taken other minorities in the military. Women aren't even serving, technically, on submarines and in combat. And, on the Democratic side of it, we still don't have the votes. People need to be patient. If the President were to use stop-loss authority, that requires him to weigh his political capital. That is a major move on his part. For this thing to change it's going to take time. Look at civil rights during the '60s, and what it took for black people to be treated equally. It took years. It took blood. It took a lot of struggle and it didn't happen overnight.
WCT: During my conversation with Lt. Choi, he also said the following: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell boils down to this question, 'Are you going to force people to be in the closet, or not?'" He went on to say that DADT affects not just the individual soldier, but their families, too. Senator, do you think DADT has any effect on familiesthat perhaps the repercussions of not repealing the law are hurting American military families?
Roland Burris: I suppose families could be affected, but I think it depends on the definition of family.
WCT: What I'm driving at is this: If a gay soldier has a spouse of the same sexual orientation and, together, they have childrentwo men or two women and their respective childrendo you think that DADT puts an added strain on that family dynamic?
Roland Burris: You're getting in the weeds. I'm not there yet. I support partnerships and everything about partnerships, but I am not to the point of supporting marriage [ for LGBT people ] . Ok? Yes, it creates an issue for people and their children, but to call it a family, I've yet to come there. To me, that is a partnership. And, those people should certainly receive partnership benefits. Partnership to you might mean family. But, what I interpret family to mean is different. Partnership to me is partnership.
WCT: Are you saying two gay moms, or two gay dads, in the same household with children, is not a family?
Roland Burris: That's a partnership. They can call it family if they want to, but that doesn't mean "family" to me. My position is that marriage is male and female for the purpose of reproduction to maintain the human species. Therefore, I have not gotten to the point of saying that those unions are "marriage." Union-comparable terminology would be "partnership" and I support partnerships.
WCT: As you know, LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [ people ] . Is there any language in the bill to repeal DADT that includes recognition of transgender people?
Roland Burris: I don't know. We can get back to you on that. I think, though, that it refers to gays and lesbians. But, we'll get back to you on that.
As reported by Windy City Times, in the last five years the military has discharged almost 800 mission-critical troops and at least 59 Arabic and nine Farsi linguists under DADT. And, in addition to losing valuable military personnel, the implementation of the lawand the investigations, prosecutions and discharges ( of soldiers for being gay or lesbian associated with ithas cost taxpayers more than $360 million by last count, according to a 2006 Blue Ribbon Commission Report.
Senator Burris is a member of the Armed Services, Homeland Security and Veterans' Affairs committees.
To learn more about Senator Burris log on to burris.senate.gov/.