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A Long March Out of the Closet

With the general public overwhelming in support of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, why is it still politically contentious to overturn the policy?
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Speaking at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in Washington over the weekend, President Obama reaffirmed his pledge to repeal the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that bars homosexuals from openly serving in the U.S. armed forces.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, engineered as a compromise by a chastened Bill Clinton in 1993 after failing to overturn the outright ban on gays serving in the military, has incited numerous controversies, and keeping gays closeted and fearful of being discharged.

Obama's recent sentiment toward the policy isn't surprising:  He's been vaguely promising to overturn it since the early days of his campaign. But his new speech did raise one question: Why is this policy still so difficult to repeal?

This article originally appeared on Oct. 15, 2009. On Feb. 2 the top uniformed officer in the U.S. military, Adm. Michael Mullen, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified before the House Armed Services Committee that they believed gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military.

For the past two decades gay activists have made enormous strides, earning civil unions in many states, and equal rights and benefits in the workplace, most notably in government offices. The general public has been largely supportive of these efforts. Recent polls suggest that as much as 75 percent of the public currently favors a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, while 89 percent believe homosexuals should have equal rights as far as job opportunities in general.

While there still is a sizeable opposition to the gay rights movement, the vast majority of opponents have given up trying to strip gays of equal benefits under the law and have circled their wagons in defense of a single issue: gay marriage. Even the staunchest critics of gay rights, weekly churchgoers, largely (69 percent) support a repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Although many Americans may privately equate homosexuality with immorality, in recent years they have become overwhelmingly supportive of workplace equality.

So why didn't Obama end Don't Ask, Don't Tell with a pen stroke the day he "closed" Guantanamo Bay to cheers?

The first reason may be that some high-ranking military officials are sticking to the well-tread, and largely incoherent, "unit-cohesion" argument. This argument follows that allowing openly gay members into a military unit might hinder or impair heterosexual troops from doing their job effectively. Since military scenarios require troops to live and sleep in close quarters, heterosexual troops might find it uncomfortable to work in these circumstances.

While this sentiment may be historically true, apparently it doesn't reflect the attitude of service members today. A 2006 Zogby Poll reported that 73 percent of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq report being comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians; 5 percent reported being "very" uncomfortable.

Academic studies have also eroded the unit-cohesion argument. A study commissioned by The Palm Center, a University of California, Santa Barbara, think tank known for lobbying against Don't Ask, Don't Tell examined four countries (Australia, Canada, Israel and Britain) that lifted bans on gays openly serving in their militaries. The study found, after extensive interviews with military personnel, defense ministry representatives, veterans, politicians and experts, that military performance and readiness in each country was not affected by allowing gays to serve openly.

But it's not the unit-cohesion argument that makes Obama hesitant to issue an executive order repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. More likely, as evidenced by the White House Press Secretary's recent statements, administration officials view a legislative repeal as a more lasting solution to the controversy.

Unfortunately, the legislative solution, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, is languishing in congressional committees. Despite the general public's receptiveness to repeal the ban, Democrats — and it's clearly a Democratic issue — simply can't get enough votes to get the bill passed. In the short term, an executive order to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell may be the only feasible option.It did provide a lasting solution when employed by President Truman to desegregate the armed forces (although it also ignited a strong backlash by Southern politicians).

Perhaps the best way forward is a two-step process. Aaron Belkin, in another Palm Center study, writes that the best way to overturn the ban begins with an executive order followed by legislative repeal. The grassroots efforts to persuade Congress members today are simply not enough. Without this two-step process, he argues, the efforts to truly integrate gays into the military would be fragmentary and incomplete.

But the Democrats and Obama won't risk it. Why would they spend the president's capital to ignite a firefight that will benefit only (what had been) their most liberal and reliable constituency?

Most likely, they won't, which means a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell just isn't realistic in the very near future.

After all, they have the 2010 midterm elections to consider.

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