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Bay Windows - 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' in the Crosshairs

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Bay Windows - 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' in the Crosshairs

by Ethan Jacobs
Bay Windows
Monday Aug 4, 2008

Fifteen years after the enactment of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Congress held its first hearing on the policy July 23, but advocates do not expect any immediate success in repealing the anti-gay policy. Massachusetts Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee's Personnel Subcommittee, which held the hearing, said that any serious effort to end the policy would likely take place under the next administration.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has pledged to oppose the policy if elected president, while his Republican opponent Sen. John McCain has expressed his support for maintaining the status quo.

"I still think there are a lot of questions that have to be addressed in subsequent hearings. Some of the reasons in the first place for the policy ... there are a lot of hard questions that have to be asked about it, and I think time has shown that some of the concerns the military had when the policy was put in place really haven't proven to be substantial enough to warrant continuing the policy. But that's the second stage. I think it'll be post-presidential election before we have further hearing on this," said Tsongas, who spoke against the policy during the hearing.

Tsongas was elected last October to succeed Marty Meehan, who had long led the charge against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." She praised her predecessor "for really taking up this issue and bringing it to everybody's attention again."

She said she believes there is strong support for repealing the policy among the members of her subcommittee, but she is unsure how the repeal effort will be received by the full committee.

"Generally speaking it was fairly clear most of our [subcommittee] members were in favor of repealing it," said Tsongas. "That doesn't address the larger committee, and I don't have a sense of where people are on the committee as a whole."

David Stacey, senior public policy advocate for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), said that he suspects there is enough support in the full House to pass a repeal bill, but he said the true level of support will become clearer the closer the House gets to a vote. The bill already has 144 sponsors, including lead sponsor, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-California).

"I think if we had a vote we probably would have 218 [a majority], but it's hard to say," said Stacey, who attended the hearing. "Members of Congress don't decide issues until it's time to decide them, so it's about building the case."

He said much of the information presented to committee members about the policy's failures, such as discharge rates and information about other nations that allow gay and lesbian people to serve openly, is old news to people who have been following the issue, but it is one of the first times Congress has been confronted with the information. As advocates prepare to ramp up the repeal effort next year there will probably be several more hearings held on the policy, and the goal will be to get more information about its detriments entered into the official record.

"A number of hearings are going to take place until the policy is repealed. ... Part of overturning the policy is demonstrating that the policy is not working," said Stacey.

Adam Ebbin, communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), said SLDN also expects the July hearing to be the first of many, but he believes it restarted the conversation on Capitol Hill.

I think it got started the conversation we needed to have in Congress and nationally. We have 143 cosponsors to the bill to repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' but have not had a hearing the last 15 years, and it's a step forward," said Ebbin. "We expect more hearings in a new Congress, but this begins to get the ball rolling."

One obstacle to repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been getting legislation introduced in the Senate. While repeal bills have been introduced multiple times in the House, no one in the Senate has followed suit. Advocates are hoping to find a pair of lead sponsors, one Democrat and one Republican, on the Senate Armed Services Committee who would have credibility with the Pentagon and who would be well-positioned to shepherd the legislation through committee. Stacey said McCain's support for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" makes it difficult to attract a Republican co-sponsor until after the election.

"In the House [Connecticut Congressman] Chris Shays is the lead Republican on the bill, and Marty Meehan and Chris Shays introduced the bill as a team, and we'd like to see the same thing happen in the Senate. ... We have not been able to put together the group of members that would introduce the bill quite yet, and right now we're into the presidential election cycle, and since this is an issue that divides the presidential candidates that makes it more difficult in the cycle to introduce the bill this year," said Stacey.

The Bay State's own Sen. Ted Kennedy, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, expressed his willingness to co-sponsor the legislation in the Senate if advocates find a willing Republican partner. In an e-mailed statement to Bay Windows Kennedy spokesman Anthony Coley wrote, "Advocates are, indeed, working to find a bipartisan group of senators to sponsor the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' Sen. Kennedy has been a strong proponent of repealing [the policy] and has worked very closely with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to identify a Republican willing to cosponsor such a repeal with him."

Sen. John Kerry, who does not sit on Armed Services, responded to a question about a repeal bill in the Senate by reiterating his opposition to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but he stopped short of pledging to serve as a co-sponsor on any legislation to repeal the policy. A source in Kerry's office said he will consider any proposed legislation to overturn "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"When it comes to defending our country, we cannot afford to waste the bravery and service of a single American, and we can't afford a broken policy that's discriminatory to boot. I've been against this policy from the start. Way back when, I testified before the Armed Services Committee against it. More than ever I believe there is a place for every American who wants to serve and defend their country and this is a time to find public servants, not public scapegoats," wrote Kerry in a statement provided to Bay Windows by his office.

During the hearing committee members heard from both opponents and supporters of the policy. Among those calling for its repeal were two openly gay former service members, Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, who was the first American injured in the Iraq war and who lost his leg, and retired Navy Captain Joan Darrah. The policy's most vocal defender, Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, prompted sharp criticism from several subcommittee members with her claims that ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would lead to an increase in HIV infections in the military and that gay service members might rape their straight colleagues. Donnelly's comments met with ridicule from a range of commentators, from Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank to the Daily Show's Jon Stewart.

Tsongas said she found Darrah's testimony the most compelling.

"One of the things I thought was very interesting was the young woman who was a captain who served for many years with great distinction and, who, when asked the question would she counsel young people who happen to be gay or lesbian to go into the military, she said no," said Tsongas.

"And we know there's an estimated 40,000 men and women who would sign up for military service if it weren't for this. So what that tells you is if we saw her great distinguished service as we did from all the others who testified in favor of repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' that we're losing tremendous talent at a time when we need it more than ever."

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