"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" All But Dead

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The Senate voted 65 to 31 this afternoon to kill “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that had been used to kick nearly 14,000 gay men and women out of the U.S. military since 1993. The measure, which already has passed the House, is on its way to the White House for President Obama’s signature. It marks a significant victory for Obama – who pledged during his campaign to fight to lift the ban – and will mark the first time in U.S. history that openly gay people can serve in uniform.

“Today, America lived up to its highest ideals of freedom and equality,” said Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group. “Congress recognized that all men and women have the right to openly serve their country.”

The Senate Majority Leader cited a right-wing icon to justify repeal. “As Barry Goldwater said, ‘You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight,'” argued Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. But Arizona Republican John McCain, a former Navy pilot and Obama’s rival for the White House two years ago, predicted that the rank-and-file will have difficulty serving alongside declared gay troops. “They will do what is asked of them,” he said, “but don’t think there won’t be a great cost.”

Ultimately, despite all the sturm und drang preceding the vote, the policy ended with a whimper rather than a bang. There has been a sense all year that barring openly gay men and lesbians from wearing their nation’s uniform makes sense – if we were living in those days before 1969’s Stonewall riots, when gays first began demanding the right to be treated as equal.

But since then, progress has been slow. First came President Bill Clinton’s ill-aimed effort to end the policy in 1993, which led to the passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” That turned what had been a unilateral presidential policy into the law of the land. The polarization triggered by that debate only made things worse for some suspected gays in uniform.

Charles Moskos, a noted military sociologist at Northwestern University, was basically the author of what became “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” His son, Peter, said Saturday that his father, who died in 2008, was proud of his role in creating the policy. But he also would have acknowledged that times have changed. “My dad would have been the first to go to the field to see how to best integrate openly gay men and women into the military,” said the younger Moskos, now an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Repeal supporters got a boost last month, when a major Pentagon survey showed that 92 percent of the troops who have served alongside gays said their presence didn’t hurt their unit’s morale or combat effectiveness. Yet the legislation to end the ban appeared dead as a part of the 2011 defense bill. But once allowed to stand on its own, it passed the House handily earlier this week.

“By ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay,” Obama said shortly before the historic vote. “And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country.”

The Pentagon already has a plan on how to implement the change. For starters, it requires top Pentagon officials to certify that the military is ready to let gays serve without harming military readiness. That could take months of training. The formal change in policy would follow 60 days later. Regulations pertaining to housing and benefits also will have to be tweaked to accommodate the shift. “The bottom line: for now, gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members must remain cautiously closeted,” said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and head of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has been championing repeal since Congress legislated the ban 17 years ago.

Adm. Mike Mullen, whose support for repeal in February really got the ball rolling, praised the congressional action. There was concern in the military that if Congress didn’t act, the courts might toss out the ban overnight. “Handling this through legislation preserves the military’s prerogative to implement change in a responsible, deliberate manner,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said. “We will be a better military as a result.”

While this is a big civil-rights issue, its impact on the military is likely to be less than many people expect. That’s because research funded by the Pentagon suggests that only 15 percent of the estimated 66,000 gay people now in uniform – perhaps 10,000 troops — will make their sexual orientation known once it becomes legal to do so. The other 55,000 or so will simply be able to breathe a sigh of relief that a secret that once threatened their military careers has now vanished.