In his State of the Union address, President Obama stated his intention to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell (the legal ban on gays in the military) within the next year. But as Pentagon officials and military leaders spoke in front of Congress this week, that timeline became murkier. What really are the prospects for ending DADT? And how long is it likely actually to take?
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier in the week and delivered a statement on DADT that shocked people on both sides of the debate with its unequivocal tone. "Speaking for myself and myself only," he said, "it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. 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.” This view was broadly seconded, in less personal terms, by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “I fully support the president’s decision,” Gates said. “The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it.”
But the actual procedure being followed has blown a cool wind over the gay community's enthusiastic response to these remarks. "I think rushing into it, mandating it by fiat with a very short timeline would be a serious mistake," Gates told lawmakers. Instead, he today established a Defense Department panel to review DADT and to recommend preparations for the military to smooth over the transition. In describing the scope of this and an additional review commissioned by the Defense Department, Gates said the emphasis would include "potential revisions to policies on benefits, base housing, fraternization and misconduct, separations and discharges, and many [other factors]." For example, these reviews will consider whether new barracks and showers or other special facilities will be needed, in addition to reconsidering the disciplinary procedures for sexual harassment.
The delay caused by the panels, in addition to the specter of special barracks, showers and goodness knows what else, have angered an already mistrustful gay community. As Aaron Tax, legal director at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network told NPR, there is no reason for special facilities. "You're a gay service member today taking a shower, and when the law will change, you'll be a gay service member taking a shower tomorrow," he said. "We're not incorporating a new element here. Gay people have been serving the military since the beginning of time." And even prominent opponents of the change, such as General Carl Mundy, Jr., are not happy about the prospect of unequal treatment. "The last thing you even want to think about," Mundy said, "is creating separate facilities or separate groups or separate meeting places or having four kinds of showers—one of straight women, lesbians, straight men and gay men. That would be absolutely disastrous in the armed forces," says Mundy. "It would destroy any sense of cohesion or teamwork or good order and discipline."
Ultimately, the Defense Department reviews and panels appear designed to buy time for Congress to get used to the idea of changing DADT, and to provide cover for legislators who might be willing to vote to end the policy against the charge of up-ending the military in the midst of two wars. “The Department of Defense understands that this is a very difficult, and in the minds of some, controversial policy question,” Gates told the Senate committee. “I am determined that we in the Department carry out this process professionally, thoroughly, dispassionately, and in a manner that is responsive to the direction of the president and to the needs of the Congress as you debate and consider this matter.” In other words, the Obama administration is determined to avoid the impression of forcing the military against its will. But the mandate of the Defense Department's panel is to provide recommendations to Congress by the end of this calendar year—and therefore probably after the mid-term elections. Since no one can predict the composition of the new House and Senate, how many votes there will be for an end to DADT remains to be seen.