Gays across the country celebrated yesterday after the Senate voted Saturday to allow equality in military service. But gays serving in the military shouldn't come bursting from the closet when they report for duty today.
First of all, the policy isn't really dead yet. The law to end it requires that the President, his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen, sign a letter certifying that the military is fully prepared for its gays to come out, even in war theaters. President Obama, Gates and Mullen are all on record opposing "Don't Ask Don't Tell," so that letter should arrive in a matter of days or weeks. But after the letter is sent to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, full repeal will take another 60 days. One gay U.S. Army sergeant serving in Georgia told me he believes "coworkers are going to be asking me questions now" since some quietly knew or assumed he is gay. "But I'm going to say, 'I can answer that question in a couple of months.'"
Still, he added, "there's absolutely no fear now at all [of being discharged] because it's on the way out." As a practical matter, the military stopped enforcing "Don't Ask Don't Tell" shortly after Virginia Phillips, a U.S. District Court judge in California, ruled in October that the policy "irreparably injures service members by infringing their fundamental rights." Ironically, although Obama will sign the law repealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell," his administration had actively fought that lawsuit in court, possibly because it was brought by a Republican group of gays.
Also, although gays are praising Obama, his Defense Secretary has always had the statutory authority to stop enforcing the law, but Obama never asked him to do so. It took the California judge's ruling to persuade Secretary Gates to order that any gay discharge must be certified personally by the Secretary of the Army, Secretary of the Navy, and the other civilian political appointees in the military. Gates' order which he could have issued years ago effectively ended "Don't Ask Don't Tell." The legislation passed Saturday was largely a formality, even though it generated great lamentation from opponents. Senator John McCain, who spoke unfavorably about "Don't Ask Don't Tell" a few years ago but who has since shifted right, called it a "sad day."
According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a legal group that represents lesbians and gays who are accused of violating "Don't Ask Don't Tell," 428 gay members of the military were discharged in the first year after Obama took office. SLDN has filed Freedom-of-Information-Act requests to learn the 2010 number, but the Pentagon has not yet responded.
And yet Obama's signing of the law was cause for partying in the gay community. When I spoke with the sergeant in Georgia, he admitted he was hung over from a Saturday night of drinking in marking the passage of the new law. The sergeant told me that not long ago, a new, invitation-only group emerged online called OutServe. He told me it started a few months ago and that the man who runs it goes by "J.D." An energetic back-and-forth debate is still running on OutServe about the merits of ending the policy. "There's going to be resistance to this change," the sergent said. But that resistance will likely die down soon; if anything, service members know how to follow rules.