This month marks three years since Congress and President Obama repealed the disastrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, which forbade gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
It was a policy with high costs and no tangible benefits: The Armed Forces needlessly lost 13,650 good soldiers during the 16 years DADT held sway, and the cost of kicking them out added up to more than $400 million—for investigations, court costs, and replacing lost talent.
And what’s become of the military since the ban was lifted? Despite the doomsday warnings from opponents of LGBT rights, who said allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would harm military morale, readiness and unit cohesion, nothing much.
The Pentagon reports that there have been no major problems since the repeal took effect.
To commemorate the repeal anniversary, I have an in-depth profile at The American Prospect of Dan Choi, who became probably the most recognizable icon of the repeal movement, after coming out live on The Rachel Maddow Show in 2009. The profile looks at what happens to an icon once the movement is over. You can check it out here.
In spite of the anniversary, it’s not quite accurate to say that the push for equality in the Armed Forces is over.
While the repeal of the discriminatory law was a big step forward, it did not ensure that gay and lesbian service members are protected from discrimination. Under current military policy, it’s no longer a requirement to kick out gays and lesbians, but there are no positive nondiscrimination protections in place to protect LGBT soldiers, nor is there a grievance system in place to address harassment or intimidation against LGBT people.
As a recent report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., points out, gay and lesbian service members are not covered under the military’s equal opportunity provisions:
[S]ervice members are not a protected class under the military’s Equal Opportunity policy, which protects service members from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, and religion, and creates a clear pathway for recourse outside of the chain of command. Instead, LGBT service members have been instructed report harassment and abuse to their chain of command or to file a complaint with the inspector general. This, however, does not trigger the same data collection process that an Equal Opportunity complaint would incite, so they Department of Defense currently does not collect any data on sexual orientation discrimination.
As with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it will take a concerted effort by supporters of LGBT rights to ensure that the military not only allows gays and lesbians to serve openly, but that it recognizes their value to the service by protecting them from discrimination.
The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) currently being considered by Congress, which would protect LGBT people from being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity under federal law (while many states have such protections in place, 29 states do not protect gays, and 33 do not protect trans people), does not apply to the military. Short of legislative action to extend the scope of the law, this means the Pentagon would have to change its rules.
The other area where advocates for LGBT rights need to apply pressure is on protections for transgender service members. Under current regulations, those who identify as trans are not allowed to serve. But unlike “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Congress doesn’t need to get involved in order to open the doors for transgendered people to serve openly—there’s no law on the books barring trans people from service, rather it’s military regulations.
All of this should serve as a reminder that equality isn’t a once-and-for-all achievement. You have to keep pushing forward, even once you think the job is done.