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Standing Up to Obama: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Can’t Be Allowed to Fester

By Lavender February 26, 2009

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I threw reasonable out the window the day I heard about Amy Brian. The Iraq veteran was forced out of the Kansas Army National Guard because someone decided he or she didn’t like Brian.

Last summer, this anonymous soul launched a campaign to railroad Brian, sending e-mails outing her to as many as 12 officers in Brian’s chain of command, The Kansas City Star reported. In August, a civilian co-worker claimed she saw Brian kissing a woman in a Wal-Mart checkout line, an incident that Brian says she doesn’t remember.

One week before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, Brian left the service, branded as the worst kind of undesirable—a lesbian. She was ejected at the same time that the Army could only meet its recruiting goals by letting in convicted felons, plump couch potatoes, forty-somethings and, in one pilot program, foreign nationals who are in the United States on temporary visas. In Brian’s case, her only crime was her sexual orientation.

“This decision was not based on performance, but federal law,” Sharon Watson, public affairs director for the Kansas adjutant general, told The Star.

Brian’s story became public as newspapers were reporting hesitation in the Obama Administration about overturning the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on lesbians, gays and bisexuals serving openly in the military. Candidate Obama, as you may remember, promised repeatedly to repeal the ban.

The New York Times, U.S. News and World Report and The Boston Globe all quoted various sources in the administration, Pentagon and Congress as saying Obama might not even begin raising the issue for many months.

The Pentagon top brass might not even be asked for their opinion on the topic until next year, The Globe reported. This is particularly worrying because the Obama Administration is now leaking that it won’t take a single step to lift the ban until a study is completed. Presumably such a study would have to include the opinions of military leaders.

If it takes months or a year to even start a study, let alone complete one, when might the military stop ejecting skilled lesbian, gay and bisexual troops, and when might those like Amy Brian get justice? If the newspaper reports are true, the earliest this issue might even begin to see action is 2010. Any change in policy, if it happens, might not be implemented until 2011 or later.

Politics has always been the art of the possible.

One of the legacies of Bill Clinton’s fumbling of this issue is that presidents lost the power to change it with the stroke of a pen. Before Clinton, presidents need only sign an executive order to lift the ban. In 1993, however, Congress passed and Clinton signed, a bill making “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” the law of the land.

Despite new Democratic majorities in Congress, passing a bill allowing lesbians, gays and bisexuals to serve openly will be far from easy. Even if it can get through the House, the bill faces the daunting task of winning 60 votes in the Senate.

That is because Republicans are filibustering every controversial bill they see, and it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. Already, political observers have identified Midwestern Democrats like Evan Bayh of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri as sitting on the fence on the issue.

If the bill doesn’t come before Congress until 2010, then it could be debated just before midterm elections. That will be the worst time to get a pro-gay anything passed.

This is the moment for the newly energized gay grassroots to take action. GLBT Americans can no longer wait patiently for politicians to find the right time to act. Being reasonable is a tactic whose day has come and gone.

The Human Rights Campaign can join forces with state GLBT groups like PROMO in Missouri and Indiana Equality. While HRC does what it does best—lobby in Washington, D.C.—the state organizations and their allies can pressure uncertain Democrats at home.

In February, HRC President Joe Solomonese reportedly mingled with Barack and Michelle Obama at a White House cocktail reception. The mere fact Solomonese was invited to the event shows how the new administration is a change for the better. Getting to rub shoulders with the first couple, however, isn’t enough.

The GLBT community dare not give Obama a pass. The Amy Brians who are still in the military cannot afford for us to allow him to delay, or fail to take action. Obama may be the most pro-gay president ever elected, but if he does not fulfill his promises, then he will have been just as bad as George W. Bush.

Diane Silver is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, whose work has appeared in The Progressive, Salon.com, Ms, and other national publications. She can be reached care of this publication or at PoliticalIQ@qsyndicate.com.

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