I’ve always maintained that the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell defeat in 2003 was actually a huge public relations victory for the LGBT community. Prior to this debate, the media largely avoided the topic of gay rights – other than the occasional daytime talk circus, dying AIDS victims, or skewed gay pride images on the nightly news.
The massive coverage of the “Gays in the Military” issue blew the hinges off the closet door for good. The media was finally able to discuss the LGBT community, offering a more accurate and nuanced portrayal of the multifaceted human beings they were covering. Unforgettable LGBT heroes emerged, such as top gun pilot Tracy Thorne and Bronze Star recipient Col. Grethe Cammermeyer.
Yesterday’s filibuster in the Senate brings me no such feeling of progress and simply leaves me cold. Unlike 1993, the vast majority of the American people support ending the heinous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. It is widely recognized that ending the careers of more than 13,000 gay service members is bad policy and that kicking out Arabic interpreters because of their sexual orientation weakens national security.
Yet, when the final count was taken, Democrats Blanche L. Lincoln and Mark Pryor joined all 40 Republicans in filibustering the National Defense Appropriations Act, which contained a provision ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
I certainly can’t blame the LGBT community for this defeat. Years of hard work paid off in moving the polls in favor this once controversial issue. The lead-up to the vote included a tremendous direct action campaign by the new organization Get Equal. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and Servicemembers United were effective in getting out the appropriate spokespeople to discuss how the current policy harms America’s military.
Today’s LGBT military heroes, most notably Dan Choi, were simply incredible in this fight and made us all very proud. And, Lady GaGa was brilliant, bringing much-needed star power to focus the nation’s attention on this week’s vote.
Victory was elusive because of the radicalization of the Republican Party and the Democrat Party’s continuing inability to wholeheartedly support issues that it supposedly believes in.
The LGBT movement is this generation’s great human rights battle and should have been treated as such. In the day’s leading up to the vote, the White House should have been furiously lobbying and twisting arms to ensure victory. On the big day, President Barack Obama should have had a high-profile breakfast with Dan Choi to show solidarity in ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid should have demanded a straight up vote on the measure and not attached it to a military defense bill – where he could be accused of playing politics. Indeed, Servicemembers United’s Alexander Nicholson wondered if Reid was intentionally sabotaging the bill:
Just more than 60 votes had been lined up to break a filibuster on (the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA) and allow the legislation to move forward for debate, amendments and a final vote before the Senate adjourns for yet another month-and-a-half-long recess. That was until Sen. Reid announced he was going to use his status as Senate Majority Leader to block the minority’s customary ability to also offer their amendments to the massive annual defense-spending bill.
This unusual and controversial move by Sen. Reid predictably enraged all Republicans, including the few who were previously prepared to help break the filibuster and allow a repeal-inclusive NDAA to move forward. And who can blame them? This isn’t a very fair move on Sen. Reid’s part, and it wasn’t a very fair move at points in the past when Republicans did it either.
Coming on the heels of the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell fiasco, Author Tracy Baim has a new book, “Obama and the Gays”, in which I wrote an essay. The book offers political insight into this complicated political marriage. In my view, Obama’s biggest problem is that he believed his own campaign rhetoric.
The President looked at the Republicans and essentially said: “I know you dug America into this deep ditch. Now, if you just help me fill in the ditch, I’ll pretend that you didn’t dig it in the first place.”
The Republicans smiled, and agreed to his fortuitous terms. Then, the moment he turned his back they pushed him into the ditch and have been trying to bury him alive in time for the midterm elections. Yet, Obama does not seem to recognize what is happening to him. For two years, he’s kept pleading with Republicans, “Get me out of the ditch so we can fix America’s problems.”
This week’s Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell defeat has taught us two lessons. The first is that the GOP is a useless party full of insane people or those feigning insanity to win the hearts (there are no minds to win) of Tea Baggers. All they offer is digging a bigger ditch and all who think they can work with this party will be buried alive. The second lesson is that the Democrats need to learn how to articulate their message and learn how to fight for what they say they believe in.
In the end, we have seen no change in this disgusting, bigoted policy, and that offers little hope to many people who fought so hard to end this injustice.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”