President Obama's relationship with the gay community has been strained over the last year. Activists have complained that, despite campaigning on promises to advance gay rights, the president has offered little concrete action, particularly on Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT), the military's ban on gay and lesbian service personnel. But in his State of the Union address Wednesday night, the President signaled that he was prepared to take real action to end DADT. Will our long national nightmare finally be over?
In his State of the Union address, President Obama made his strongest statement to date about his intention to end DADT. "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay and lesbian Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do," Obama said. And the day after that address, all signs are that the president meant what he said. Major news agencies (Reuters, the Associated Press) are reporting that next week the Pentagon will outline its initial plan to end the discriminatory policy. The military will take some internal action to prepare for the change before the White House and Congress actually repeal the law. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell would not specify what those steps would be, but told reporters that, "The secretary and the chairman have been and continue to work on an implementation plan and will be able to share it with you early next week."
Not everyone is happy about this change, of course. Republican 2008 presidential nominee and Arizona senator John McCain said of DADT, "I believe it would be a mistake to repeal the policy. This successful policy has been in effect for over 15 years and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels." And there is resistance among the Democrats as well, including from Representative Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who heads the Armed Services Committee in the House. Skelton, who was influential in the original compromise with President Clinton that led to DADT (as opposed to a policy that would have legalized gays in the military), has vowed to oppose efforts to repeal the law. "I am personally not for changing the law," he said during a C-SPAN "Newsmakers" interview that will air Sunday.
What's at stake in DADT? More than was previously thought. Earlier this month, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law released a report on the prevalence of gays in the military. They found that roughly two percent of all military personnel are gay or lesbian, a slight increase over previous estimates. That's a small percent—but the military is very large, so it's a lot of people. The study estimates there are 66,000 gay men and women currently serving in the armed forces. Any and all of them could abruptly be discharged if their sexual orientation were discovered. Hopefully President Obama can change that—at least he seems prepared to try.