Over the course of the next 18 years, the gay movement undid DADT itself. The two people left in the movement headquarters when DADT was passed, Dixon Osburn and Michelle Benecke, borrowed a couple of computers and started the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. At first the SLDN had the modest goal of just stopping the military from “disappearing” the service members it thought were gay in enforcing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Get a lawyer in, they figured. Citizens have a right to a lawyer. Get a lawyer and you start to look like a citizen. Citizens don’t disappear.
In the ensuing decades, the SLDN, and, more recently, other gay movement organizations like Servicemembers United and the Human Rights Campaign, pursued the cause. Sure, the culture was changing after 1993, but the gay movement also changed the culture. They told the stories of the gallant men and women who only wanted to serve their country. They made a case when Pfc. Barry Winchell was murdered in his bed by a homophobic bunkmate. The polls began to reflect a shift in public opinion.
All the major congressional players in the repeal tell stories of meeting some gay service member who taught them the lesson of their gallantry. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand met Lt. Dan Choi. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a war veteran, tells of “a battle buddy in one of the toughest courses in the Army [who] got kicked out because he happened to be gay” — only to be replaced by someone who “couldn’t carry his lunch.”
Because DADT was a law, even if President Obama had the courage of a Harry Truman, he could not just sign it away. But everyone knew that nothing would change in Congress unless the Pentagon he supposedly commanded got behind repeal. Eventually, it did. But it was the Pentagon’s timetable for a study that put the repeal into the lame duck session of Congress, where it had almost no chance of getting through. A senior congressional staffer who worked the issue for two years says that it was clear to everyone that important people at the White House would have been happy to see it delayed and defeated.
Finally, after a federal judge declared the law unconstitutional in a case brought by the Log Cabin Republicans, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a press conference urging Congress to act. The White House didn’t even have the courage to include the families of gay and lesbian service members in the kickoff of the first lady’s consummately nonthreatening “Joining Forces” initiative for military families last April. Unlike Harry Truman, Barack Obama didn’t want to get ahead of the curve.