Rewriting History

Michelangelo Signorile weighs in on 'Don't ask, don't tell.'

BY Michelangelo Signorile

February 07 2011 5:00 AM ET

 Servicemembers Legal Defense Network also felt the White House’s retribution, cut out of an important meeting early last year after criticizing the president on his sluggishness regarding the repeal effort. SLDN, however, kept up the pressure. The group’s relentlessness, along with that of the blogosphere, in particular AmericaBlog Gay, signaled to the administration that HRC really was not in control of the movement.

HRC’s ineptitude was further amplified when the direct action group GetEqual came onto the scene last spring. The actions of Robin McGehee, Lt. Dan Choi, Autumn Sandeen, and other GetEqual activists arrested for chaining themselves to the White House gates, among other protests, sent a message to the administration and Congress that patience was no virtue to those demanding an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” According to media reports, Obama grew angry at the actions of these activists, who also disrupted his speeches at fund-raisers for Dems facing tough reelection bids. But that was a good thing; the pressure needed to be on him. The same was true of Senate majority leader Harry Reid, whom GetEqual targeted when members shut down the Las Vegas Strip in protest during the annual Netroots Nation convention in July (Reid was also later confronted onstage by Choi).

The claim that these actions were counterproductive is ludicrous. These grassroots players became the very people that the White House and Reid ultimately responded to, and they were later invited to the repeal signing ceremony in December. Had they not engaged in civil disobedience, repeal would have stalled further.

Revision number 3: Putting repeal in the defense authorization bill was wrong. It should have been crafted as stand-alone legislation all along.

This revision plays on all the others, particularly since it was grassroots activists, along with SLDN, who pushed hard early on to get repeal included in the defense authorization bill. While DADT repeal did eventually pass by itself, it would not have been taken seriously had it not originally been included in the defense bill, a must-pass piece of legislation. Attaching repeal to the bill forced senators to grapple with the prospect of voting against funding for the troops in order to pander to religious conservatives and Pentagon hard-liners. In the end Republicans and a handful of Democrats chose to filibuster the bill twice, but not without significant hand-wringing, which only heightened the repeal effort’s relevance. But even more important, as the year dragged on, the inclusion of DADT repeal in the defense bill became the excuse moderate Republican senators used to join the filibuster.

Once DADT repeal was finally removed from the defense bill in mid December and made into a stand-alone bill, moderates no longer had any excuse to vote against it. After all, the Pentagon study had been released and served only to aid the repeal effort. For Collins, it became a face-saving issue after she’d invested so much in it and saw the defense bill blocked by her own party. If repeal had been voted on as a stand-alone bill earlier in the year, it wouldn’t have had much relevance or momentum. And voting on the bill prior to release of the Pentagon study surely would have doomed it.

In the end, if Harry Reid hadn’t pulled the omnibus spending bill from the lame-duck session—clearing the schedule — the vote for repeal likely wouldn’t have happened. That stroke of luck, bolstered by the relentless pressure of grassroots activists, is what made repeal happen. It’s not a coincidence that other promises made by Obama, including the DREAM Act and ending the Bush tax cuts, never came to pass. I could not think of a clearer lesson for the LGBT movement and for all progressives.

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