There have never been higher hopes for our community as a president took the oath of office as in January. We were promised an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. And as a Senate candidate, he supported gay marriage; as a presidential candidate, he was opposed, but spoke out against antigay-marriage legislation in Pennsylvania and Proposition 8 in California, also stating that he supported federal civil unions that would give same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
While the administration states it still supports those issues and is working on a strategy to achieve at least some of them in Obama’s first term, something happened last week that was unsettling.
National Guard First Lt. Dan Choi, an infantry patrol leader who has seen combat and speaks Arabic, along with a group of 38 West Point graduates, came out in March with the offer to serve as a sort of support group for other LGBT cadets, and more importantly offered to serve as a liaison with the Army administration as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed.
Choi appeared on “The Rachel Maddow Show” and publicly came out in violation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and returned to the show last week. This came to the attention of the White House press correspondents and the following exchange took place between reporters and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
GIBBS: The president, as you know, supports changing that because he strongly believes that it does not serve our national interest. He agrees with former members of the Joint Chiefs in that determination. Unlike photos, the durable solution to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is through the legislative process, and the president is working with Congress and members of the Joint Chiefs to ensure that that happens. REPORTER: But couldn’t he in the meantime put a moratorium on these discharges until that can be accomplished? GIBBS: The president has determined that’s not the way to seek any sort of lasting or durable solution to the public-policy problem that we have. REPORTER: How would you respond to the criticism that dismissing qualifying linguists endangers the troops? GIBBS: I would respond by saying the president has long believed the policy doesn’t serve our national interests.
To put this into perspective, you have to notice two other items the administration turned around on: continuing the military tribunals in Guantanamo, which he said he would end during the campaign; and he would not release the infamous Abu Ghraib torture pictures.
So where’s the common link? The military. In that regard, even before taking office Obama and his staff were well aware of how entrenched our military system was and how difficult it would be to win their trust. Their homework was “The Clinton Curse.” One of President Bill Clinton’s first efforts was to resolve the gays in the military issue. This led to the creation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a political disaster. Like then, the military doesn’t trust the new president.
Should this be a surprise? No. During the campaign, Obama said in the Philadelphia Gay News exclusive interview last September that he would work to change the military ban by working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We further asked him if he’d do it by executive order or a signing statement. Again he stood his position. The president wants to change the ban by legislation in harmony with the Joint Chiefs. But there is opportunity in what happened this week.
The president could create a presidential commission to look into “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” That commission would have members of Congress and the military — on both sides of the issue — as well as members of the military who have been personally affected by the policy. Choi would be a prime candidate.
While it doesn’t help those who are being dismissed currently, it does accomplish the president’s promise to work jointly with the military and Congress to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It moves the issue forward and produces the dialogue this president appreciates.
Mark Segal is PGN publisher. He can be reached at [email protected].