In 2010, during the State of the Union address, President Obama proclaimed that he would work with Congress and our military to finally repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a law that had denied LGB Americans the right to openly serve in the armed forces of their country.
Days later, Vice President Joe Biden predicted that the policy would be eliminated by the end of the year. Within a week, Admiral Michael Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), offering testimony on the need for change.
Admiral Mullen told the Senate committee, “no matter how I look at the 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…. Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”
This was a groundbreaking statement from the nation’s most senior military leader. Soon after, senior leaders at the Pentagon began a review on how best to implement such a change, a process that could take up to a year.
On the Hill and in the White House supporters of the repeal got to work, including Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the SASC, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Vice President Joe Biden. Many of the pieces were in place: the White House supported repeal, the military was ready for change, and in Congress supporters on both sides of the aisle were ready to act. At the same time, opponents of repeal made their position clear. There were those on the SASC who sought to delay, challenge, and otherwise undermine a policy change that not only had support in Washington D.C., but across the country.
In March 2010, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) proposed legislation to repeal the policy. At the same time, The Center for American Progress, a legal team at the WilmerHale law firm, and several other organizations also got to work strategizing over how to take the policy forward. They immediately had to contend with one key question — how to overcome both congressional opposition and align the legislative timetable with the Pentagon review so that repeal legislation could be approved by the end of the year.
To complicate matters, the opportunity to incorporate repeal language into the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act was closing, increasing the likelihood that a repeal of DADT would not happen by the end of 2010.
The answer lay in a compromise that CAP presented. The SASC would vote to implement language in the NDAA allowing for the repeal of DADT once the president and the secretary of Defense had certified the final review from the Pentagon indicating that the military was ready to end the policy.
Vice President Biden spent the weeks leading up to the SASC’s vote contacting former senate colleagues and urging them to right an historical wrong — one that had cost almost 14,000 soldiers their livelihoods since 1993.
On May 27, 2010, in a historic and bipartisan vote, members of the SASC convened and voted 16 to 12 in favor of Senator Lieberman’s proposal to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That same day, on a bill sponsored by U.S. army veteran and Pennsylvania congressman Patrick Murphy, the House voted 234-194 in favor of repeal. One of the major dissenting voices came from then-congressman, now-Vice President Pence, who chastised members of the House for advancing what he described as “a liberal social agenda.”
Success that day built momentum for Senate-wide action. Days after the Pentagon had finished conducting its review in December 2010, supporters of the repeal acted. A last-minute hitch, however, almost saw it delayed as some Republicans refused to bring it to a vote as part of the NDAA.
Instead, on December 18, 2010, Senators brought repeal forward as a freestanding vote. Senator Carl Levin urged his colleagues to consider the gravity of that day’s decision: “I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.”
The vote passed by a remarkable 63-31 votes, with eight Republicans joining Democrats.
The certification of repeal was then enacted in the summer of 2011, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta forwarded the final directive to President Obama. No longer would gay and lesbian soldiers have to hide their identity simply because they wished to serve their country; no longer would they have to suffer discrimination and inequality because of who they loved.
The repeal was a landmark event for LGBTQ+ rights. Once the nation’s largest employers changed policy based on the fact that it was wrong to discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation; it helped lay the foundations for a decade of redressing further inequities. Chief among them was the glass-ceiling achievement in 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
While there is plenty more work to do, the SASC vote on May 27, 2010 proved to be a key moment in the journey toward a fairer and more equitable America. Much of the credit for its passage must be given to Admiral Mullen, and to Senators Levin and Lieberman, as well as to those still in public life who, 10 years later, continue to fight for LGBTQ rights, including Speaker Pelosi and Vice President Biden.
Winnie Stachelberg is the executive vice president for external affairs at American Progress and the former vice president of the HRC Foundation. Rudy deLeon is a senior fellow with the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress, and formerly served as deputy secretary of defense and chief operating officer at the Pentagon.