As a reporter listening to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen speak in support of ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, I couldn’t help but have a sense of déjà vu—back to 1991. Then, as now, there was palpable optimism surrounding a Defense secretary’s sentiments. Dick Cheney, who served in the position under President George H.W. Bush, was only tepidly defending the Pentagon policy barring gays from serving in the military when ABC News’s Sam Donaldson asked Cheney about Pete Williams. Cheney’s assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Williams was soon to be outed in a cover story I wrote for this magazine.
“Mr. Secretary,” Donaldson began during the 1991 interview, “a national newspaper about homosexuals, The Advocate, is publishing a story this week saying that a high-level Defense Department official, a member of your staff, is a homosexual. Does that give you a problem, particularly in terms of the regulations which separate members of the uniformed services if they are homosexual?”
Cheney replied by insisting that he would not ask Williams to resign. He stated three times that the policy, which applied only to uniformed service personnel, was simply one that he had “inherited” in his tenure. It was often applied unfairly, he said, though there was no plan to change it. Just days before, testifying before the House Budget Committee and knowing that the story was coming out, Cheney called the policy “a bit of an old chestnut.”
This was a real shift, the most that we’d had seen on the issue to date, and it was certainly promising coming from a Republican administration not known for being friendly to gays. Within a year Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, speaking at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles and referring to the hypocrisy of a gay “Pentagon official,” promised to overturn the ban on gays if elected.
After Clinton’s election many of us thought the ban would be history in short order. But soon after he took office, what did we get? A review—spearheaded by members of Congress—and one that focused on lurid issues, like soldiers sleeping in close quarters. It was red meat for a sensationalist media, and it ultimately ate away at public opinion on the issues, leading in 1993 to the current DADT law, which Clinton described as an “honorable compromise.”
So excuse some of us veteran reporters for being fearful of a similar scenario playing out when we hear about another review now under way. (Substantial research has already shown that unit cohesion is unaffected by allowing gay soldiers to serve openly.) Massachusetts representative Barney Frank, who was there as well in 1993, said as much on my radio program in February regarding a Pentagon review of the policy. “I was actually a little troubled by some of Gates’s approach,” Frank said. “I have no idea what he plans to study when he talked about housing. I’m not aware that they had double beds in the military.”
Frank certainly remembers what the hysteria over sleeping quarters and showers did back then, and surely he’s worried about how the 24-hour news cycle might focus on those matters now. So far, it’s not been encouraging. Like junkies who fell off the wagon, the media were once again in full lurid form following President Barack Obama’s pledge to end DADT in his State of the Union address. They were happy to float supposed problems posed by the presence of openly gay men in the military and paraded religious moralists back on the airwaves. CNN anchors routinely raised the issue of “showers” and “separate barracks” throughout the day of the Senate hearing—red herrings disrespectfully thrown at several openly gay discharged service members invited on as guests. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution actually claimed young recruits couldn’t handle gays because they tend to be “testosterone-laden” and cannot accept “alternative forms of lifestyle.” Later that day, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council popped up on the network to argue against what he has called the “sexualization” of the military—as though he’s a military expert.
MSNBC, the supposed “liberal” network, invited Perkins’s Family Research Council colleague Peter Sprigg, on Chris Matthews’s Hardball to debate Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Why are religious ideologues from a conservative Christian group positioned as authorities on the military and sexuality? Even Matthews was forced to question why his own guest was on the show after Sprigg couldn’t offer some basic statistics on gay soldiers. By the end of the segment, Sprigg said, “I think there would be a place for criminal sanctions against homosexual behavior.”
Almost immediately after the hearing, the Associated Press and other news outlets began reporting that, though public opinion has shifted in favor of DADT repeal, attitudes within the military are split. In fact, we don’t have enough recent polling to make that conclusion. A 2006 Zogby International poll found that two thirds of soldiers who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and knew a gay person serving with them said there was no effect on unit cohesion. On National Public Radio, California representative Duncan Hunter claimed that “transgenders” and “hermaphrodites” will soon invade the military. Though at first it seemed to ignore the hearing entirely, Fox News surely didn’t disappoint its anti-gay base. By the end of the week, Lt. Col. Oliver North was on Hannity asserting that allowing gays to serve openly would open the door to “NAMBLA members.”
In lockstep with many media outlets, some Democratic political analysts also reflexively reached for an outdated script. Despite the seismic shift in public polls, with most showing more than 75% of Americans in favor of repeal, Democratic consultant Douglas Schoen wrote in The Washington Post that Obama’s promise to end DADT “may well be the right decision morally, ethically, and militarily. But it could have a dramatic and deleterious impact on Democratic fortunes in November.”
It’s a ludicrous statement, divorced from reality, and an example of what AmericaBlog’s Joe Sudbay called “political homophobia,” where politicians and analysts who claim to support gay rights nonetheless believe that fighting for gay rights will always damage political capital. It ignores the dramatic changes that in fact have occurred: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior military man in the nation, testified that repealing the law was “the right thing to do,” while a Republican senator long touted as a military authority was finally reduced to the status of an out-of-touch troglodyte. Arizona senator John McCain truly seemed caught off guard by Mullen’s passion to repeal the ban. The moment his anger flared with the respected chairman and the even-tempered Defense secretary, the political and cultural terrain shifted.
With the exception of McCain, Republicans on the committee and elsewhere seemed intent on not appearing too antigay—another sea change from 1993. Utah senator Orrin Hatch walked on eggshells, signaling in an interview with MSNBC that he was open to repeal, only to later retreat slightly from his remarks. Sarah Palin said now wasn’t the time for repeal, indicating she might be in favor of a repeal at another time. In the weeks that followed the hearing it was clear that we had entered a new era. Republicans were no longer the agenda setters on DADT.
And that’s why repeal opponents can’t be allowed the time to build opposition using a media corps primed to churn out sensational fodder. While Barney Frank and several Democratic senators called for a vote on DADT’s repeal well before a Pentagon study is complete—and before Democrats could lose congressional seats in November—the Democratic leadership and the White House were hedging, with Nancy Pelosi telling reporters she didn’t know if there would be a vote until after the midterm election. This might mean we wouldn’t get a vote for years if the Democrats lose a chamber of Congress—or even just a few key seats.
National LGBT groups need to make the argument to the White House and the Democratic leadership that fighting for something you believe in—something that has majority support, even if it is on behalf of a minority—will actually earn you votes and energize your base. But, as usual, these groups likely are too afraid of angering the White House and losing access. It’s quite possible that, after all the change we’ve seen since the early ’90s, the déjà vu many of us are experiencing could be grounded in reality. Activists thought they were so close to ending DADT—with the help of a president who courted their votes and their donations—only to see equality put off for years to come.