Colman Domingo
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Former Defense Chief: 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal Was Good for All

Man in the army with American flag over shoulder

Back when I was peeking my head out of the closet while working in Washington, D.C., I dated a guy in the military who was assigned to the White House. That was a really big deal, since you didn’t get an assignment like that unless you were the cream of the crop.

That relationship didn’t last long because, in order for it to survive, we had to be super stealth, as he lived in fear of being outed. If we went to a movie, one of us went in first, and the other followed a few minutes later. If we were going to a bar — never a gay one — the same rule applied. Basically, he was scared out of his mind that someone was going to see him with another man, and he just couldn’t handle the thought of being caught.

Ten years ago, on September 20, 2011, when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was finally repealed, I thought about him immediately. I always liked the guy. He was disarmingly handsome and had a great sense of humor. And wow, could he drink. Probably to hide all the pain of hiding. But I always felt so sorry for him, and I hoped that if he was still in the military, the repeal would finally set him free.

We don’t need to go into the horrendous history of “don’t ask, don't tell.” It was a shambles when it was first announced and an absolute mess when it was — or wasn’t — being abided by or enforced. 

One man who was instrumental in the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” was Leon Panetta, who was the secretary of defense in 2011. He had replaced Robert Gates, who had been President George W. Bush’s defense chief and stayed on in the early years of President Barack Obama’s administration.

Panetta is one of the most revered public servants in history, and his résumé is unmatched. He served as a congressman from California for 16 years. He then went to work in the Clinton administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget and later as President Clinton’s chief of staff. When Obama was elected, he appointed Panetta as director of the CIA and later tapped him as defense secretary. 

I had the chance to speak to Panetta about that day 10 years ago when the flawed “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed. 

“That happened right after we got Bin Laden, since we just celebrated the 10th anniversary of the successful raid of his compound,” Panetta started during a call from his office at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Monterey, Calif., which serves the entire California State University system as well as other schools.

I asked Panetta if it all seems so long ago, considering all that’s happened during these last 10 years. “In some ways, it seems like yesterday, yet on the other hand, when we see changes made in terms of those who can participate in the military now, it just shows how far we have come,” he said.

To Panetta, the most important takeaway from the repeal is that it led to the opportunity for more people to serve their country. “I really do believe that everyone ought to have the chance to serve their country in some capacity,” he said. “Our ability to get rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ opened up more opportunities for women and transgender individuals to serve. It just validates the point that our country is best served by giving everyone who wants to serve the chance to serve. That’s what makes our democracy what it is.”

Panetta said that he was on the periphery of the debate when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was being hammered out early in the Clinton administration. “Initially, President Clinton was going to try to move ahead and open the military; however, he ran into opposition, particularly from Senate Defense Committee Chairman Sam Nunn and most members of the leadership of the military,” he recalled.

“And when I saw the compromise of ‘don’t ask, don't tell,’ my sense was that it was doomed to fail. If you tell people they can’t say who they are, you are asking for trouble.”

It was around this time that the myth that open service by lesbian, gay, and bisexual people would affect the morale of the troops was introduced, and it rose again during the repeal debate. “When we began thinking about repealing, people who were in opposition returned to the issue of morale, and there were still some concerns it might impact on the ability of the military to operate in an effective way,” Panetta said.

Yet Panetta sensed that the country had changed. “There was a great deal of change, and coincidentally that was reflected in the military itself,” he noted. “We put out a request to the military, and Jeh Johnson, who was general counsel of the Defense Department, and Ash Carter, who was deputy defense secretary, cochaired a study that looked at what the impact of a repeal would be. And when the findings came back, 70 percent of the troops believed it would have no effect on morale and no effect on the military getting the job done. What that told me was the change in our society was being reflected in the military.” 

“When we put the repeal into effect, the reality was that the military carried it out in a way with little disruption,” Panetta continued. “It immediately benefited our fighting capability.”

I asked Panetta what he remembered most about the whole process leading up to the repeal. “I think there was some nervousness about what we would be able to determine, and the military was nervous, and yet what we found was that most of the military was accepting. So what I think was learned was that you can be wrong in trying to judge your fellow human beings as to who they really are. What was comforting and clear was that people really were accepting of others for who they are. That gave me a lot of encouragement, and I knew we were clearly on the right track.”

I asked him how passionate President Obama was about the repeal. “I think it became a priority for him, and he mentioned it as a goal in a State of the Union speech that took then-Defense Secretary Gates by surprise since he wasn’t aware the president was going to bring that up. Gates would have come aboard if he had stayed; however, I was there when it happened, and I was honored to sign the rule, passed by Congress, along with President Obama.”

Was that moment one of Panetta’s proudest? “It most certainly was one of my proudest moments. One of my goals as secretary was to open up more opportunities for people to serve our country. Just before I left, women were finally allowed into combat positions, and toward the end in our last year [2016], transgender individuals in the United States military were allowed to serve in their identified or assigned gender upon completing transition. I really felt very good about giving more people more opportunities to serve their country.”

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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