December 20, 2018 at 7:15 pm PST | by Tom Carpenter
SLDN’s long road to DADT repeal

SLDN Board Chair Tom Carpenter, OutServe co-founders Ty Walrod and Josh Seefried (aka JD Smith), and Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper in Oct. 2011. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Many in our community never understood why any LGBT citizen would ever want to become part of a military that proclaimed “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service,” often sending LGBT service members to prison because of who they loved. The hard-core anti-war/military crowd wanted no part in the fight to lift the ban on open service.  Bowing to these objections, many large LGBT organizations paid nothing more than lip service to this effort.

As a candidate, Bill Clinton promised to lift the ban. Clinton had no idea the forces that opposed this change in policy. Those of us, who had served, knew better. The military and Senate leadership blocked him, including members of his own party. Instead of a policy, in 1993, we ended up with a federal law—“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” (DADT).  This law proved almost as bad for LGBT service members as the outright ban.

Shortly after the law went into effect, two young lawyers, former Army Captain Michelle Beneke and Dixon Osburn, established Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). They realized other LGBT organizations had neither the desire, nor expertise, to take on the task of providing legal assistance to those who would likely run afoul of the law. Their ultimate goal was to repeal the law in its entirety, allowing for open and honest service.

I joined the board of SLDN in 1994 and served as its co-chair for 7 years. It was clear to us that it would be another 10-20 years before Congress would be willing to take up this hot-button issue again. During the administrations of George W. Bush from 2000-2008, we felt as if we were in the wilderness. Thousands of service members were being discharged as the military asked, and some LGBT service members told. SLDN provided legal assistance to many and saved numerous careers.

Our arguments of how unfair the law was, and how much it was costing taxpayers to train replacements for highly skilled service members who were discharged, gained little traction. Sadly, it was the brutal murders of a sailor, Allan Schindler, and a soldier, Barry Winchell that finally focused attention on why this law was counterproductive to military readiness, unit morale and discipline. Both these young men were brutally beaten to death because one of their fellow service members merely thought they were gay.

These two tragedies captured the attention of the country. At SLDN, we recognized it was personal stories that would humanize this fight for equality. The mother of Schindler, as well as the parents of Winchell actively participated in SLDN’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. Their emotional appeal to members of Congress was powerful. But it was not enough. 

Our strategy was to have veterans in the forefront of the lobbying and media effort.  Especially effective were those who had been discharged, resigned their commissions, or did not reenlist because of their sexual orientation. The most compelling personal stories came from Arabic linguists, medics, pilots, and infantrymen who had been on the front lines in the Global War Against Terror.  Many of these veterans appeared on television and had their stories reported by the press.  Through these efforts, it was becoming ever more clear to the public, the law was not working. These veterans made the case by revealing the simple truth—the law was contrary to the core values of the services. It required them to live a lie.

It was not until Barack Obama was elected in 2008 that we started to see an end game. With a Democrat in the White House and a more friendly Congress, we continued our strategy of telling personal stories. By this time over 12,000 patriots had lost their careers. There was much foot dragging from the White House during the early part of President Obama’s first term. The memory of what had happened to President Clinton’s effort, sixteen years earlier, clearly impacted the willingness to spend political capitol on this issue.

By 2010, SLDN marshaled Congressional allies and helped draft a bill to repeal DADT. It was becoming clear SLDN”s media and lobbying efforts had changed public opinion. Most Americans now favored repeal of DADT. Further, the Pentagon was being threatened by a series of lawsuits that challenged the law. The turning point was when the Senate held hearings and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified he favored repeal. In contrast to 1993, the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed.

In the lame duck session of the 111th Congress, notorious for inaction, a true miracle occurred. In a stroke of legislative brilliance, led by Army veteran, Congressman Patrick Murphy, DADT was repealed. On Dec. 22, 2010, President Obama signed the repeal law.

With the repeal of DADT, the first leg of institutional bias had collapsed. As predicted, in 2015, after a tremendous effort by LGBT groups, the Supreme Court ruled all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, had a fundamental right to marry.

The only institution remaining in the way of equality is ministry. “Religious liberty” is now the rallying cry of the opponents of freedom for all Americans.  While progress is being made, many battles still lie ahead.  Never give up!

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