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City Council Votes to Repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

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Aired 6/26/09

The San Diego City Council passed a resolution to support the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. Why did the city council weigh in on a national issue like "Don't Ask Don't Tell"?

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
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Above: Local editors discuss San Diego City Council's decision to support a national bill that would repeal the military's policy on openly gay and lesbian service personnel.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): The idea of repealing the military's 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' policy is alive and well in San Diego, at least at the San Diego City Council. This is the policy that says it's okay for a gay or lesbian to serve in the armed forces as long they don't openly declare their sexual orientation or publicly engage in same sex activity, nor will the military actively seek to learn someone's sexual orientation. Well, this week, the San Diego City Council actually took a vote on it and resolved to support repealing 'Don't Ask Don't Tell.' So, Tony, this is a matter of national concern and there's been some criticism of the council using its energy on national policy rather than focusing on local issues.

TONY PERRY (Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Oh, I don't know that the city was damaged by spending ninety minutes discussing a rather important sociological issue that impacts thousands of San Diegans who are serving in the U.S. military. You're right, seven-zip. Tony Young was not there. Now, whether Tony took a walk so that he wouldn't be on the record is a good question. The mayor, while not a voting member of the city council, was in favor of this. This is HR-1283, pending before the U.S. Congress, that would repeal 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' and would allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. Very controversial, not moving as quickly as the activists would like. President Obama had promised during the campaign that he was going to lift or lead a movement to lift 'Don't Ask Don't Tell.' Hasn't done that. He's asked the Pentagon, asked the generals and the admirals to take a look at this and give him a report and that is still pending.

PENNER: Okay. Well, I wonder if this vote to repeal 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' reflects the way San Diegans feel about this, especially the way the San Diego military feels about this, and I'd like to ask our listeners. If you were on the San Diego City Council and you were taking a look at a resolution to support repealing 'Don't Ask Don't Tell,' how would you vote? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Ricky, you're – you cover government, as I said before. Of what value are resolutions on national policy from cities? I mean, what happens to them? Do they ever actually go to congress?

RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): They do and, you know, they – as you gather them across the nation, I'm sure they have some impact. It was noted before this came to the council and in the resolution itself that most major cities in California, and I think that would mean most Democratic-leaning cities in California, support – have already supported a resolution like this, so San Diego was sort of portrayed as a straggler on the issue. I think the real value of them, though, is not necessarily in—at least from my perspective—the value is not necessarily swaying congress so much as just telling people in San Diego where their elected officials stand on issues like this.

PENNER: So is there any significance to the fact that San Diego was a straggler on this? I mean, San Diego is a military town and one would think, you know, military's filled with tradition so you would expect that San Diego would not be the laggard but might be up front in making some kind of a statement regarding 'Don't Ask Don't Tell.'

YOUNG: Well, but, you know, San Diego's also somewhat more – it's certainly more conservative than in L.A. or Berkeley and so I would expect them to come on with something like this later. I mean, symbolically speaking, you might say it's like the mayor who was against gay marriage until his somewhat famous press conference turning around on it because – and admitting he had – or, not admitting, saying he had a lesbian daughter and he's become a real leader on that issue and I think San Diego's coming along with him to some extent.

PERRY: San Diego doesn't…

YOUNG: If I could just mention one more. Carl DeMaio, the Republican on the city council, and also gay, he was – he's openly gay, although it was absolutely not any part of his campaign, running in Rancho Bernardo.

PENNER: And what about Todd Gloria?

YOUNG: But – but he's really – he's coming around quite a bit and is starting to show some leadership on this issue and spoke out about it at the meeting.

PENNER: And Todd Gloria.

YOUNG: Absolutely. But he – That was always part of his persona and it was a – that was a big part of his campaign and his – his speech when – at the inaugural and everything.

PERRY: San Diego does not tend to lead these sociological movements. Gay cops, women in the fire department, Gay Pride Parade, San Diego didn't lead but it didn't trail too badly. Once it gets going in other cities, San Diego comes along. Doesn't put its feet in concrete, says not never. So this is pretty much consistent with where San Diego is on these sorts of things.

PENNER: Before I turn to the calls, I want to bring Andrew into the discussion. California supported Proposition 8 which was basically a ban on same sex marriage and it was upheld by the State Supreme Court. Considering that and the large number of states that haven't legalized same sex marriage, will the repeal of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' have a hard time getting approved in congress? Andrew.

ANREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): You know, that's a great question. Tony might be a little bit more qualified to answer that one.

PENNER: Well, I just want your opinion.

DONOHUE: But I – I – I mean, I think it's one of those – I think it's one of those ideas whose time is coming. There's been a lot of criticism of the Clinton administration, you know, for going the sort of – as a half step there but it was – hey, maybe it was something that was necessary to bring, you know, a culture and a people along. And so I think it's an idea that its time has come now and we're starting to see this debate everywhere.

PENNER: Well, our listeners want to get involved in this discussion so let's start with Reggie in Chula Vista. Hi, Reggie, you're on with the editors.

REGGIE (Caller, Chula Vista): Oh, yeah, I'm happy to respond to this. I was in the military for 20 years. I served as a hospital corpsman, and I never, never encountered any problem. And let me tell you, there are gays in the military and you know what, your 'Don't Ask Don't Tell,' it should be considered now 'don't worry.' They can serve in combat. Also, women, don't discriminate. Please stop discriminating. Forget that 'Don't Ask Don't Tell,' don't worry about it. They're going to be there. It's not a problem, okay? You're making a big deal out of nothing. They're going to always be around. It's no big deal.

PENNER: So you…

REGGIE: Thank God they're with us.

PENNER: So, Reggie, you feel as though the 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' should be repealed and that gays and lesbians should be allowed into the military without any problem.

REGGIE: Yes, you know why, because in the military, when you're in uniform, you can't – no matter if you're heterosexual, you can't – you can't display any form of affection to anyone when you're in the military. It's like a standard that they have. But it doesn't matter. It really, really, really doesn't matter.

PENNER: Thank you, Reggie. But, Tony, you were with the Marines in Iraq and the Marines, I understand, have had a number of people from Camp Pendleton who have been expelled from the military because they were gay. I think it was like 18, since Obama became president, and Miramar MCAS had another four, and overall I think the number's 250, have been expelled from the military since Obama became president.

PERRY: Well, that's an extrapolated figure…

PENNER: Yes.

PERRY: …based on how many were kicked out since 1993, and it's thousands, including a lot of linguists at a time when we desperately need people who can speak various language in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ball is clearly in the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates', court.

PENNER: Not in the president's?

PERRY: If he comes – If Gates comes back and says it's time, this policy is outmoded, the country has moved on, the younger generation that is serving is quite accepting of this, if he comes out and says anything close to that, I think opposition will collapse and it'll speed through congress and to the president's desk. Now, if he comes out and says this is not the time to attempt an experiment, the policy, while flawed and not executed perfectly, still is a good policy, then I think the support for dropping 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' evaporates. All roads lead to Bob Gates, Secretary of Defense.

PENNER: And not to the president. The president couldn't, by executive order, just declare it's over?

PERRY: Yes, he could. Probably be challenged in court. But he has not opted to be that activist on this despite some push by some of his supporters. He could do that but then he would risk going over the heads of the admirals and generals and, at this point with two active wars and he's still gaining credibility with the uniformed services and the general officers, he's not going to do that.

PENNER: Andrew, I'm going to ask you to hold on for a second. Let's take a call from Rick in San Diego. He's been waiting patiently. Rick, you're on with the editors.

RICK (Caller, San Diego): Yes, well, I've been in the military for about 16 years and it's not a secret that gays and homosexuals are in the military. Sometimes somebody's been honest enough to just share that with me in the military. My question's always been, we know there's high performers that are gays and lesbians, and that's great from the military standpoint. They're a – they definitely add value to the military. But one of the questions that I've always wondered and I plan to ask, you know, the higher-ups, is accommodations. Will there be accommodations for the same reason that there are accommodations for females and males, meaning berthing areas, you know, showers, that type of stuff. Because I think that's where the conflict is at.

PENNER: Okay. I think that's a really genuine question that needs to be asked. Does the argument, Ricky, that—and not Rick on the phone…

YOUNG: Yes.

PENNER: …but Ricky in the studio—does the argument that it is not logistically feasible for the military to provide segregated facilities for straight and gay men and straight and lesbian women make sense?

YOUNG: You know, I don't know enough about that but I do have a hard time picturing, you know, the sign over the door, you know, 'gays here' and 'straights here.' I – It's just – Logistically, it's just hard to imagine.

PENNER: Tony, you're – you've been in that environment. I keep coming back to you as our source.

PERRY: And the berthing arrangements aboard ship, aboard the carriers, in particular, you're very, very close to other folks. But, no, I don't think it would be a problem. As one of the callers points out, there's some heavy strictures for sex harassment and fraternization, and people get in trouble all the time for fraternizing with the opposite sex or messing around with the opposite sex. It – You could extend that, the theory goes, to messing around with people of the same sex. As a reporter, I'm neither for nor against this thing but I do think, from my experience watching the Marines, if there was strong leadership from the top, generals and then noncommissioned officers, it could work.

PENNER: Okay, thank you very much. We are going to come back and look at the subject a little bit more right after the break. This is the Editors Roundtable.

# # #

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner at the table today with Ricky Young of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Andrew Donohue from voiceofsandiego.org, and from the L.A. Times, we have Tony Perry. And we have you. I'm going to get right back to your phone calls. We're talking about 'Don't Ask Don't Tell.' The San Diego City Council passed a resolution saying let's repeal it and now we're asking you what your opinion is and we're getting lots of them. But I want to go to Andrew because we were talking earlier about whether congress would support a repeal of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell,' whether President Obama might possibly do a presidential order, an executive order saying, okay, we're repealing it.

DONOHUE: Yeah, I don't think we can assume because there's a Democratic president and a Democratic congress that this is something that would slide through easily. We have a president that's been very cautious on these sort of things. If you remember, he is supporting civil unions but he's not supporting same sex marriage, which I think has sort of angered or alienated a number of people in the progressive community. And then we also have a Democratic congress but plenty of Democratic congresspeople that were elected in conservative districts, especially socially.

PENNER: Here's something interesting. A June Gallup Poll found that the majority of adults favor overturning the ban. The number was 69%, including 58% of Republicans. So is it clear, Ricky, that Americans are ready for the change?

YOUNG: Well, I – I suppose it – the general feeling might be that but I do think there's a lot of constituencies that might be more important, like the military itself and I think, you know, that as with the, you know, say, gay marriage across the state, I think younger people in the military are more willing to go that way so it might take more time. I don't know.

PERRY: And it does open up some issues. If two soldiers, Marines, sailors, whatever, are married, do they get housing on base? How about spousal benefits? How about health benefits? There are some issues that would have to be worked through.

PENNER: Okay, let's go back to the phones and hear from Ben in San Diego. Ben, you're on with the editors. Welcome.

BEN (Caller, San Diego): Good morning.

PENNER: Good morning.

BEN: I was one of the speakers at the resolution – resolution about this earlier this week.

PENNER: Yes.

BEN: And I just want to say that we are not acknowledging that our military is so professional that when following orders they will have to follow the orders from above. And we're not giving our military that acknowledgement that once Obama and the Pentagon says this is the law, this is how we have to treat all our soldiers and sailors, no one's acknowledged that this is going to happen so it's…

PENNER: Okay, that's – that's an interesting point. So, Tony, when people feel one way or another about it, once they get the order, this is the way you treat them, that's what they're going to do.

PERRY: Sure. And, again, strong leadership from the top, generals saying the right things, noncommissioned officers, senior NCOs following it up, I think then everybody falls in line. Don't forget, we've gone through this once before with the racial integration in the late 1940s. There was opposition from general officers, there was opposition in the ranks, but it didn't really come to much once the President of the United States and then other folks said it very strongly, we will be integrated. Now, I'm not necessarily buying off on the analogy between race and sexuality, that's part of the debate. But I think history does say that when the commander in chief lays down a very strong order and it's followed, it's followed.

PENNER: It's followed. Okay, well, I'm sorry we can't get to all the calls that are coming in on this one but we do have another segment and this has to do with money, so we're moving on.

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