Aaron Belkin, Barack Obama, Mike Mullen, Nathaniel Frank
Above the Fold
Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
–Martin Luther King Jr., August 16, 1967
Let us now praise four great Americans: Aaron Belkin, Nathaniel Frank, Admiral Mike Mullen, and Barack Hussein Obama. They deserve more credit than everyone else for the historic vote of the United States Senate last weekend which will finally make it possible to end discrimination against the most courageous gay men and lesbians in the land.
It was a long time coming.
One of the reasons gay Americans were most excited about Bill Clinton when he ran for president was his promise to end the ban on gays in the military as soon as he took office. But between the time Clinton was elected in November of 1992 and when he was sworn in on January 20th, 1993, the religious right had quietly gotten a majority of both houses to commit themselves to opposing any change in the policy.
Then Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell made an unholy alliance with Georgia Senator Sam Nunn to oppose the change, and the result was the disastrous compromise of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” – a policy that was supposed to permit gays and lesbians to serve as long as they didn’t disclose their sexual orientation, but actually led to the expulsion of more than 13,000 service men and women over the next seventeen years.
Barack Obama took enormous flak from the gay community for failing to over-turn the policy more quickly, but now his slow and methodical approach has finally paid off.
One year ago, at an off-the-record lunch with progressives at the White House, Obama was asked when he was finally going to fulfill his campaign promise.
Wait until early next year, Obama replied: Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is going to say something very interesting about this a couple of months from now.
Because Colin Powell’s opposition had been so critical to Bill Clinton’s failure to keep his campaign promise in 1993, Obama understood very well that he would need his chairman of the Joint Chiefs on his side if he was going to win the battle this time. And last February, Mullen came through – with all of the courage and integrity that Colin Powell had failed to muster seventeen years earlier.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mullen declared,
It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do…. For me personally, it comes down to integrity; theirs as individuals and ours as an institution…. I have served with homosexuals since 1968…everybody in the military has…. No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. I also believe that the great young men of our military, can and would accommodate such a change – I never underestimated their ability to adapt.
Without a doubt, it was Mullen’s testimony which eventually made it possible to convince large majorities in both houses to finally vote for equality.
Like so many of the greatest victories of the gay rights movements, this one is a tribute to how much a handful of determined individuals can achieve. The two people who did the most to make Mullen’s testimony possible were two brilliant academics: Aaron Belkin, Associate Professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University and Director of the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire, the definitive book about gays in the military, which Frank published to rave reviews in the spring of 2009, providing all of us with unlimited ammunition to rebut the arguments of our deeply prejudiced opponents.
For the last decade, Belkin and Frank have spent most of their waking hours making sure that the public and its political representatives were aware of one very simple fact: There is not, and there never has been, a single piece of hard evidence to support the idea that allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces would do anything other than enhance the national security of the United States.
Together they wrote scores of articles and made hundreds of appearances to drill that idea deeply into the national consciousness. Here are the bullet points from a typical piece Frank wrote for the CNN website, in response to a Washington Post op-ed by four retired officers, which claimed that lifting the ban would harm unit cohesion, recruitment and retention, and would ultimately “break the All-Volunteer Force.”
* The [officers’] argument is an old one, and was an effective canard in defeating President Clinton’s move to lift the ban in 1993. But it has never been rooted in fact or evidence, and the effort of these officers to defeat equal treatment this time around will face mountains of opposing data and a dramatically changed cultural landscape.
* The officers who oppose openly gay service do not base their arguments on any new information.
* They cite an unscientific survey – it does not draw from a representative sampling but from newspaper subscribers – indicating that 58 percent of the military oppose lifting the ban and that, if it’s lifted, 24 percent claim they will leave or consider leaving after their tour ends.
* But it’s naïve at best, and disingenuous at worst, to confuse this opinion survey with a sound prediction of actual behavior. When both Britain and Canada proposed lifting their gay bans in the 1990s, similar opinion surveys found much higher numbers – about two-thirds in both cases – claiming they, too, would leave. In each case, no more than three departures were attributed to the policy change. Three.
* In fact, the evidence showing that openly gay service works is overwhelming. Since 1957, when the U.S. military began doing its own studies on gays in the military, every last bit of research has shown that openly gay service works.
* Studies of foreign militaries include a 1993 Government Accountability Office study of allied nations that found that “the presence of homosexuals in the military is not an issue and has not created problems in the functioning of military units”; a 1994 assessment by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences finding that predicted negative consequences of ending gay exclusion in the Canadian Forces never materialized; the 2000 assessment of the British Ministry of Defense, calling its new policy of equal treatment “a solid achievement” with “no discernible impact” on recruitment or other critical variables; and four academic studies conducted by the Palm Center, where I work, finding that lifting bans in Britain, Israel, Canada and Australia had no negative impact on military readiness, including on recruitment and retention.
(Very appropriately, Frank wrote his first two pieces on this subject in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New Republic in 1998 – on the fortieth anniversary of President Truman’s executive order integrating the black and white units of the Armed Forces.)
And here is what Belkin wrote for The Huffington Post after John McCain pretended that the newest study proving that there would be no serious harm from an end to discrimination was somehow inadequate.
* Senator McCain and other Republicans fabricated phony arguments left and right. The 28 percent response rate to the military’s survey on gays, they said, is too low and renders the results invalid. Forget the fact that that’s about average for web-based as well as military surveys. Forget that any social scientist will tell you that response rates have nothing to do with the validity of a survey’s results as long as the pool of respondents is drawn properly. In this case, the military’s survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percent.
* Then Republicans said that they just want to be sure not to rush things. Rush!? The Pentagon has been studying the issue for almost a year. There were more than 20 prior studies, all of which found the same thing, that gay troops don’t harm the military. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was supposed to be a temporary compromise when it was enacted 17 years ago. And, the first soldier fired for gay sex was drummed out of the Continental Army more than 230 years ago! How much slower do the Republicans want to go?
* Then the Republicans repeated the only phony claims about combat effectiveness. Sure, a bunch of combat troops say that repeal would undermine combat effectiveness. But saying something is going to happen is not the same as showing that it is going to happen. Service members in foreign militaries also said that gays would undermine combat effectiveness, but when gay bans were lifted in those countries, there was no impact at all. And get this: of the 69 percent of U.S. troops who serve or suspect they serve with gays, 92 percent said that repealing the ban would not undermine their unit’s ability to work together. If gays undermined combat effectiveness we would have seen that already in Iraq and Afghanistan (and for that matter, Kuwait, Vietnam, Korea, and World War II, all of which included openly serving gay troops).
* My favorite baloney of the day was the Republican talking point that the Pentagon Working Group failed to listen to the troops or ask them whether “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be repealed. Huh? The troops offered opinions on this and other topics in an on-line inbox that received 72,384 comments, in 95 face-to-face forums at 51 bases that included more than 24,000 troops, and in 140 smaller focus groups. It is true that the survey did not include a question about whether the troops want repeal. But the troops had a lot of other opportunities to express that point. And we already know from three different polls, (Annenberg, Zogby, and Military Times) that approximately 40 percent of the troops oppose repeal, 30 percent favor it, and 30 percent don’t know or don’t care.
* Why can’t the Republicans just be honest? They don’t care what is good for the military. They don’t care about what the Secretary of Defense says. They don’t care about what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says. They don’t care about the data. They don’t care about methodology. They don’t care about process. They care about one thing and one thing only: prejudice. And when it comes to prejudice, all they want is more, more more.
Veteran gay activist Ethan Geto summarized the achievements of Belkin and Frank this way:
What a historic moment in the great civil rights battles of modern times! You guys deserve more credit than you’ll receive – and you’ll receive plenty – because you crafted the intellectual framework that was the sine qua non to achieve repeal. Your exhaustive research, your compelling presentation of the issues and your relentless logic that left our opposition without a factual leg to stand on have been a marvel and a privilege to watch. If you hadn’t shown that unit cohesion actually would be strengthened by repeal, brought attention to the positive experience of foreign militaries, exposed how the military discharged so many highly-skilled and critically-needed specialists and worked so persistently inside the Pentagon and the service academies, this day would not have happened in my lifetime.
Belkin is now writing a book about the seventeen-year battle to change the policy, How We Won: Inside Stories from the 17-Year Struggle to Repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Whichever house is lucky enough to publish this book will get the definitive story of the first great American civil rights battle of the 21st century.
Five others deserve special mention for their efforts to make this tremendous victory possible.
They are Congressman Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, an Iraq war veteran who made the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell his signature issue – and got 187 of his colleagues to co-sponsor the repeal of the current policy, before he was defeated at the polls in the Republican surge of last November.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin was a principled and persistent critic of the current policy.
Jeh C. Johnson co-authored the latest Pentagon study with Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of the United States Army. As Elisabeth Bumiller reported in the Times today, Johnson’s uncle, “Robert B. Johnson, was not only one of the Tuskegee Airmen, but was also a participant in what is known as the Freeman Field Mutiny in 1945, when a group of the airmen were arrested for entering an all-white officers’ club at Freeman Field in Indiana. The airmen were imprisoned for 10 days until the Army chief of staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, intervened. Three years later, President Harry S. Truman integrated the military by executive order.”
And although Johnson told the Times that “discrimination based on race and sexual orientation are different — sexual orientation, he maintains, is ‘not a self-identifier’ ” – unlike Colin Powell, Johnson understood that there were more similarities than differences between today’s battle and the one fought for black troops by Harry Truman six decades ago.
And when he took his current job at the Pentagon, Johnson told friends that a repeal of the current policy would be his first priority.
Finally, there are two great gay authors who set the stage for this week’s magnificent achievement: Allan Bérubé, who wrote “Coming Out Under Fire,” about gay American troops who served in World War II, and Randy Shilts, whose final book was Conduct Unbecoming. Together, they proved that gay people had been serving honorably, but secretly, in the armed forces since our republic began.
Yesterday, FCP asked Belkin how he felt about his great achievement. This was his reply:
Two hundred and thirty-two years ago, in 1778, the first gay soldier was kicked out of the Continental Army. As a community we kept telling the rest of the country to treat us as human beings. Last weekend, they finally listened.
* * *
The passage of this splendid bill should reminds us of one other political reality of our time: Whenever the Washington press corps decides that Barack Obama’s administration is an abject failure, that is a very reliable indicator that he is poised once again to rise from the dead.
In the last two weeks Obama got a new economic stimulus package passed (at the cost of some outrageously unnecessary tax cuts), he gave the gay community its greatest legislative victory ever, and it looks like he is about to overcome the opposition of know-nothing Republicans to get the START treaty passed by the Senate.
Last night the Senate even rescued the food safety bill from what looked like almost-certain oblivion.
Combined with the passage of health care, and a financial regulations bill whose provisions have been consistently underestimated by the mainstream media and the blogosphere alike, this is what is really true about our president: On the domestic front, he has now accomplished many more important things in his first two years in office than any other modern president since Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The hope here is that Obama will still manage to get out of Afghanistan before that catastrophe obliterates his achievements at home, the same way that Vietnam overshadowed so much of what LBJ accomplished with the Great Society.
Ernesto Londono had a superb story in The Washington Post about gay American troops following the Senate’s vote around the world, from Afghanistan to Frankfurt.
Nate Silver finds an interesting correlation between states carried by Obama in 2008 and Republican senators who voted to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
There was an electric atmosphere in the auditorium of the Department of the Interior on Wednesday morning, where five hundred people had gathered to witness the president signing the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Admiral Mike Mullen was the most admired person in the room, and he got two standing ovations which proved it; Congressman Mike Murphy of Pennsylvania, the Iraq veteran who had led the battle to get the bill passed in the house, got a richly deserved ovation as well.
Aaron Belkin sat beaming in the first row in front of the stage, exactly where he belonged.
The New York Times posted a pedestrian story about this extraordinary event, but at least it managed to record the presence of the most important gay activist in the room, eighty-five year old Frank Kameny, a World War II combat veteran who is the father of the gay rights movement in the United States.
Four and a half decades ago, at the height of the black Civil Rights Movement, Kameny had led the first gay picket line outside the White House, protesting federal job discrimination against homosexuals. Since Obama became president, Kameny has been inside the White House as a guest, four times.
Just weeks ago, most gay Americans were still disheartened by Obama’s record on gay rights. But today, even David Mixner, a long-time gay activist whose criticism of the president had been blistering, was present in Washington to cheer the movement’s once and future hero.
“Yes we can,” the crowd chanted.
“Yes we did,” the president replied.
Until today, the two greatest gay rights victories in America had both been decisions by the United States Supreme Court–Romer V. Evans, in 1996, when the court invalidated a Colorado state constitutional initiative that had forbidden protection for gay people from discrimination, and Lawrence v. Texas, which over-turned every remaining state law which had made our kind of lovemaking a crime.
Not once had the House and the Senate both managed to pass a major gay rights initiative. And when the Senate initially failed to muster the votes to halt the filibuster against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell earlier this month, there was a collective shudder within the community, over yet another failure by the Senate to corroborate the notion that all men and women are created equal.
That roller coaster ride was one more reason why today’s climactic victory was so dramatic, and so satisfying.
The president’s speech was vintage Obama, as good as anything he delivered on the campaign trail.
He recalled his recent visit to Afghanistan, where a young woman in uniform standing at the rope line “pulled me into a hug and she whispered in my ear, ‘Get Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ done.’ And I said to her, “I promise I will.”
To many of us, keeping that promise was at least as important as anything else he has done as president. Today, Obama looked as though he felt that way as well.
Then the president ended with a peroration as moving as any he has ever delivered:
We are not a nation that says, “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
We are a nation that says, “Out of many, we are one.”
We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot.
We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal.
Those are the ideals that generations have fought for.
Those are the ideals that we uphold today.
And in that instant, all of the idealism he had originally embodied was instantly restored for millions of his most passionate supporters.