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Should Congress Repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’?

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Aired 9/1/09

The debate over the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is heating up on Capitol Hill as gay-rights groups call for the law to be repealed. We speak with a legal defense group about the developments as well as a retired lesbian service member about how the law affected her career.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. When "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was first introduced as a policy by President Bill Clinton, it was touted as a new, more tolerant approach to gays and lesbians in America's armed forces. The way it has been implemented, however, is as a ban on openly gay members of the military. Over the last 15 years almost 13,000 service-members have been subject to mandatory discharge according to the terms of "Don't Ask Don't Tell." Candidate Barack Obama told the gay and lesbian community he opposed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and would sign legislation overturning the ban. Some gay activists are not pleased with the way President Obama has so far lived up to that campaign promise. But right now, efforts are gearing up to get Congress working in earnest on a repeal. To find out the status of that legislation and what opposition it may be facing I'd like to welcome my guests. Aubrey Sarvis is executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, that's SLDN, a non-profit group focused on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And, Aubrey, welcome to These Days.

AUBREY SARVIS (Executive Director, SLDN): Thank you very much. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. And Zoe Dunning is also one of my guests. She is the board co-chair of SLDN. She's a retired navy commander who has the unique distinction of serving for more than 13 years as an openly gay member of the military. Zoe, welcome.

ZOE DUNNING (Board Co-chair, SLSD): Thanks. I'm so glad to be part of this.

CAVANAUGH: And I would like to invite our audience to join the conversation. Do you have an opinion about the military's ban on openly gay service members? Tell us what you think. Call us with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Aubrey, as I mentioned, originally "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" was supposed to make it easier for gays to serve in the armed forces. So tell us what happened.

SARVIS: Well, I think the reality is it's been very difficult for gays and lesbians to serve openly and successfully under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law. The reality is to serve successfully, you have to hide, every day, who you are. The reality is this is a federal statute and under the language of the statute, you cannot be open and serve successfully in the military. That's very difficult. A few people have done it but not a great deal. And the reality is, as you mentioned in the introduction, 13,000 service members have been discharged. This is the evidence, this is the proof that this experiment, this statute, is not working. And I think there's growing awareness of that reality. We certainly see it in the House of Representatives where we have a bill to repeal the statute and replace it with a policy of nondiscrimination which would allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. That bill has 168 co-sponsors and I'm hopeful that in the next 90 days it will be beyond 200 co-sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Aubrey, I'm interested, what was the policy before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?"

SARVIS: Well, before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," there was a flat prohibition by regulation which prohibited gays and lesbians from serving in the military period. In fact, in those days when we had the draft or if you volunteered, there was a question on the forms and the question went something like this: Do you have homosexual tendencies? And if you checked 'yes' you were sent to see the psychiatrist. If you answered yes again, you were not allowed to enter the service. But that was by regulation, that was not by a federal statute. That regulation was adopted in the '40s. Prior to the adoption of that regulation, there was not a prohibition against gays and lesbians serving in the military.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. So the "Don't Ask" part is they took it off that required entry thing but they did – they actually made the ban on gays and lesbians, I mean, it's a mandatory dismissal now under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

SARVIS: That's correct. That's correct. The "Don't Ask" part was they only ask supposedly under the statute – or, cannot ask, I should say, is when you are entering the service. So the military is precluded from asking you when you want to join, when you're volunteering to join. The reality is, is they often ask after you are in the service.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, Aubrey, you made the comment that there is a big push now in congress to get a bill signed, sealed and delivered and to the president's desk. Where are we on that? How far has that gone in congress so far?

SARVIS: Well, as I mentioned, there are 168 House members who are – who have co-sponsored this bill. We're hoping to hit 200 perhaps in November or December and to send the message to the Speaker, to Speaker Pelosi, that this bill is ready for a vote on the full House floor. In the Senate, Senator Ted Kennedy had been our champion and our lead and, obviously, we're going to have to rethink our strategy in the Senate in terms of bill introduction. Later this week, I'll be meeting with two or three Senate staffs to explore a bill introduction in the Senate, hopefully, this month. And in the Senate, either later this month or in October, we expect the first "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee, the first hearing in 16 years since this law was enacted. In the House, last year we had the first hearing in the House Armed Services Committee. We also anticipate a second hearing in the House Armed Services Committee later this year. Probably that hearing will be chaired by Congresswoman Susan Davis from San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Oh. Yes. Okay. We're talking about efforts to repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and I'm speaking with Aubrey Sarvis. He's executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. They're working on that repeal. And I want to bring Zoe Dunning into the conversation. She's a retired navy commander, the board co-chair of SLDN, and I'm also inviting our listeners to call at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. And, Zoe, as I mentioned originally, you had a rather unique experience as an openly lesbian navy commander. What was your personal experience with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?"

DUNNING: Well, I, prior to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," I came out when Bill Clinton had announced that he was going to lift the ban on gays in the military, the prior policy. And in support of that pledge, I came out publicly at a rally in California and, unfortunately, we then went into, in 1993, that whole debate about gays in the military. I had a discharge hearing under the prior policy where, as you mentioned, simply being gay or lesbian was grounds enough for discharge and, in fact, a board of officers had voted unanimously to kick me out. But before the board could actually enact that, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was announced. And so, in effect, I had been found guilty of a policy that was going to be supplanted by a new policy so once the policy was in place I had to go through a second discharge hearing and I think – and I actually won that hearing unanimously. I'm very much an exception. I think what happened was because "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was such a new policy, there was not great clarity as to what it took to defend or prosecute one of those cases. And because I had a completely spotless record and was on the fast track within the military, the board of officers I think saw my attorney's arguments that it would be a waste to discharge me and they voted unanimously to retain me and they did and this was back in 1994 and I served for the next thirteen and a half years as an open lesbian.

CAVANAUGH: Now did – Was there any difference in the way your co-workers, your colleagues, in the military treated you?

DUNNING: Well, I think the relationships changed. Before, I was – always maintained a bit of a distance from my co-workers because I had this sort of whole sort of hidden aspect of my life that I didn't want them to find out about or I would lose my, you know, career. So I, you know, I went to work, I did my job, I didn't socialize very much with my fellow shipmates. But then after I came out, there was obviously concern for me and my career, a lot of people expressed respect for me standing up for what I believed in. Others were upset that I seemed to be embarrassing the navy somehow publicly. But, overall, I was accepted pretty well. And, in fact, I was able to establish stronger relationships and stronger bonds with my shipmates and fellow unit members as a result of being able to come out because I no longer had to hide this aspect of who I was.

CAVANAUGH: And did you know of other colleagues who were discharged because of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy? What a position that must've put you in.

DUNNING: Oh, no, I have seen many, many friends and colleagues that have been victims of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, both knowing them when they were going through it as well as afterward. And it's a terrible shame. I do have, in some ways, survivor guilt but I think that's why I do remain so active on the issue and why I'm involved with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network is because I know that I am the exception and I know that there are many others out there who are serving honorably, doing a great job, doing – and we need their service and we are unnecessarily discharging them.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let's take a call now. I am inviting our listeners to join our conversation. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. And Jen is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Jen, and welcome to These Days.

JEN (Caller, San Diego): Yes, hi, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: Hi. I'm fine. How can we help you?

JEN: Yes, I had a comment and then I had a question for the naval officer. Just my quick comment is I think that it is absolutely ridiculous that there's this bigotry towards our gay and lesbians in the military. There are several historical military greats who were, themselves, homosexual that people seem to forget about, such as Alexander the Great. My question is I know that as far – at least my understanding as the Marines go, they incorporate God into their belief structure. I was wondering if this discrimination was founded from religion or just simple bigotry or from sexual issues?

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that call, Jen. And, Aubrey, you must've done some research into this. Can you enlighten us as to Jen's – the answer to Jen's question?

SARVIS: Well, I think historically it's been a fear that gay and lesbians would somehow be a disruption in the ranks, that there would not be acceptance if their presence were known. The reality is just the opposite. I mentioned that there are gays and lesbians serving openly. It's difficult. A lot of that depends on their commanders if the commander exercises discretion to keep the service member in, hence many commanders do. But I think the original regulation came about in terms of some concerns, some fear, about gays and lesbians serving in the ranks. But as Zoe mentioned earlier, when she did come out, she had acceptance, respect, from a number of her colleagues and they were on her side. And we see that repeatedly with service members that we represent is that once they come out, once their colleagues know what has happened, more often than not, we see support and respect for that service member and that's particularly true among the younger members in the ranks.

CAVANAUGH: Aubrey, I'm wondering, how much opposition is the military exercising in maintaining "Don't – in other words, against the repeal in order to maintain "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Do you feel a considerable pushback on this or what is the opposition like these days?

SARVIS: Well, I think the opposition is intense in some quarters. The Senate for Military Readiness leaned on it. But by and large, I don't see a lot of the opposition and I don't think we're seeing it because it's not – it's not there. And that was evident in the hearing that I referred to earlier. Last summer in the House Armed Services Committee, we found generally a favorable reception for open service among Republicans and Democrats. As a matter of fact, that was quite a contrast between the hearing 16 years ago and the hearing last summer in the House Armed Services Committee. There was not a lot of opposition expressed among members for changing the law and getting rid of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

CAVANAUGH: That's…

SARVIS: A lot of questions were asked but even among some of the more conservative members of the committee, they did not come out in any mean-spirited way against open service. That's not to say there isn't some opposition. We know there is. But I think that's another reason why we want to get the co-sponsorship up in the House to over 200 and schedule that vote. And I'm fairly confident that we will prevail when that vote is scheduled.

CAVANAUGH: Aubrey, we have to take a short break. When we return, we'll continue our discussion about the efforts to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

# # #

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS, and we're talking about the new efforts to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that was introduced in the '90s and has wound up leading to the discharge of almost 13,000 service members from the military. And we are talking with Aubrey Sarvis. He's executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. And Zoe Dunning, on the board of the SDL – SLDN, sorry, and a retired navy commander. And we are also taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let's go right to the phones and speak with Miguel in Mission Valley. Good morning, Miguel. Welcome to These Days.

MIGUEL (Caller, Mission Valley): Good morning. How are you? Thanks for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

MIGUEL: I served in the U.S. Army for five years and I just wanted to comment about having gays in the military does present some structural problems for the military because, for instance, in boot camp we have large shower bays where you have 50 to 60 recruits showering together. And in most cases, I mean, you're side by side waiting to shower so some privacy issues do exist. And I know that it exists for women in the service, too, because if you're in a shower bay full of nude men, where is the privacy for the people that are not homosexual?

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Thank you. Thank you for your call, Miguel. Aubrey, do issues like that come up and what is your response to them?

SARVIS: Well, the shower issue the privacy issue does come up and I think Zoe and I have both responded to that over the years. The reality is that whether you're gay or straight in the military, it's always about conduct. And I – First let me say to the caller that in our experience most of the showers today around the world are private and they're showers for one person. But I have not seen service members express concern about privacy, about the showers, that we talk to on active duty. That's not the reality we see today among young recruits, and I don't know that Zoe's experience has been any different.

CAVANAUGH: Zoe, I do want to ask you that and I also want to put it in – frame it in terms of don't we have research that there is a different attitude about serving with fellow members of the service who may be gay or lesbian among this new generation, very young people coming into the service?

DUNNING: Absolutely. And I want to reiterate Aubrey's comment about conduct. I mean, you – People are showering alongside gays and lesbians today and if they're conducting themselves fine, they will continue to conduct themselves similarly and if they don't then they're subject to the same, you know, judicial punishment. But, yes, there's definitely polling that shows attitudes are different amongst the younger generation. They're also a little different between men and women. Women seem to be much more accepting than men, although the majority of conservatives now allow – think that gays and lesbians should serve. So attitudes have changed dramatically since 1993. But I think as a new generation comes in, as the younger folks are – start to take positions of leadership, I think this will become much more of a non-issue than it has been in the past. I mean, just one other point that I wanted to make in terms of the showering issue, there's been a connection between sexual harassment and the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the sense that when the Canadian Armed Forces lifted their ban on gays in the military, reports of sexual harassment by the female soldiers were reduced by 46% and what happened there is that when someone sexually harasses a female soldier or sailor and the woman complains, oftentimes it's turned into a witch hunt against them for being a lesbian. And so they have this sort of hammer that they can hold over the women's heads if they ever report anything, and if you remove that hammer, when you allow people to serve openly without fear that they're going to get turned in for being a lesbian, suddenly the sexual harrassers monitor their behavior much more carefully.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Let's take another…

SARVIS: And Maureen…

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Go ahead, Aubrey.

SARVIS: Aubrey, again, if I may, just want a final comment to the caller and his concern. The reality is that 26 other countries have open service. The reality is with Israel, with Great Britain and Australia, the shower argument when it's raised is, frankly, laughed at. It's not a big deal. Folks are about doing the job. Our gay and lesbian and straight service members are all professional. This is about professionalism.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. And let's go to the phones and speak with Norm in Imperial Beach. And good morning, Norm. Welcome to These Days.

NORM (Caller, Imperial Beach): Yeah, I just want to comment on the incredible stupidity of the, you know, the American armed services, especially in the field of Intelligence. I mean, here you have people that were fluent in Arabic, understood the culture, and because they were gay, oh, no, no, no, we've got to throw them out. Now they've lost all their good translators, and great big, giant duh.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, thank you for that, Norm. Aubrey, I'm wondering, that is a big issue, especially since 9/11, the idea of discharging professionals, linguists, because they were gay or lesbian. That was – that's been a big issue in the military, hasn't it?

SARVIS: It's been a tremendous loss for the military. We have a number of individuals that we have represented over the years who are in critical skill sets such as linguists, such as doctors, such as engineers. As a matter of fact, Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach is an Air Force service member we're representing today. He's an F-15E aviator, 18 years plus service, $25 million invested by the Air Force to train and prepare him and, unfortunately, he's under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" proceedings and before an Air Force personnel review board. And in all likelihood, unless someone intervenes, either the board or the Air Force Secretary, this service member will be discharged.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I'm wondering, Aubrey and Zoe, if the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is repealed will there be any retroactive recourse for those who were dismissed because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?"

SARVIS: Well, the legislation as drafted, Maureen, does not provide for that. So individuals will be able to apply again but they're not guaranteed by the legislation…

CAVANAUGH: I see.

SARVIS: …you know, reentry. So they will have to reapply. And, frankly, we've heard from a number of service members who say they will. They want to go back in, they want to serve their country again, notwithstanding that they have been discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. James is calling from Imperial County. Good morning, James, and welcome to These Days.

JAMES (Caller, Imperial County): Good morning. Hey, I just wanted to make a couple comments, one for your guests and one for that last caller regarding the linguistic people. And I'm in the reserves right now and I can tell you I support "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" because I've seen some soldiers are probably openly gay and so forth and it does cause concern in, you know, in social issues, showering, going out to the field and different areas where you're, you know, back to back and with soldiers and so forth, people get concerned with stuff when they're too openly gay. If it's under wraps and it's not flamboyant in your face, there doesn't seem to be a problem. But when it's open then there does seem to be a problem. And I took issue with your guest saying that she was a victim. I mean, she went into an organization where she knew, you know, what they were like. I mean, there's a tradition. She went into a, you know, predominantly male area and then she goes in there and then says suddenly I'm a victim. This is how they treated me. I mean, anyone that goes in the military, Army, Marines, they know how it is, and to go there and suddenly say, well, change for me, you know, I feel is wrong.

CAVANAUGH: Well, James…

JAMES: And…

CAVANAUGH: …thank you.

JAMES: …I…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for your comment. I want to – We're hitting close to our time here and I want to get some response. Thank you very much for calling. So, Zoe, do you want to respond to what James said?

DUNNING: Yeah, I mean, I've heard that argument before. First of all, I think I, like many others – Well, I know for me, and I think like many others, when I entered the military I was 17 years old. I had no idea about my sexual orientation. And for many people it forms, you know, later on after they join. So it wasn't like I came in under false pretenses. I honestly answered 'no' when they asked me that question when I came in but recognized about myself later on in my career. I think that the military should not accept bigotry and intolerance. Even if we say, you know, what it is going in, it doesn't mean that we should necessarily accept it. So if it's a hard place for women or it's a hard place for African-Americans or it's a hard place for gays, then I think we need to address that and change it rather than just say, hey, deal with it.

CAVANAUGH: I want everyone to know that we did contact the navy to join us on the show and they never actually called us back on that so we gave it an effort. Aubrey, I want to ask you again, where you on this legislation and if people do want to see a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," what should they be doing now?

SARVIS: Well, for those who support repealing this law, they should contact their congressman or their congresswoman and/or their two senators. It's just that simple, is to take the time to write or to e-mail or to call. You can go to our website, sldn.org, look up your member of congress, send that e-mail, ask to go in and talk to your member. It's very important that we get a vote if at all possible this year in the House and have a vote in the Senate next year as well. We need to get this done over the next 12 to 16 months.

CAVANAUGH: And, briefly, why? Why is it so crucial in timing?

SARVIS: Well, I think that it just becomes more difficult in terms of the political calendar.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

SARVIS: The reality is the Obama administration will be in the third year or the fourth year of this administration. They will be in the reelection mode.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.

SARVIS: And I think getting it done in this 111th Congress is critical.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you.

SARVIS: This is – this is the best time and the support is there and the enthusiasm and energy is rising and we need to capture that and move this forward.

CAVANAUGH: Aubrey, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Aubrey Sarvis is executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. And Zoe Dunning, a retired navy commander, also co-chair of SLDN. Thank you so – both so much for being with us today.

SARVIS: Thank you for having me.

DUNNING: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know if we couldn't get you on the air and answer your question on the air, please do post your comments online, KPBS.org/TheseDays.

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