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Do or Die for
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Do or Die for
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell"


Gay rights activist with an actor-model-author hyphenate, Reichen Lehmkuhl kicks off his column with a blunt look at the state of "don't ask, don't tell," promises made by President-elect Obama, and why gay Americans can't let the passing of Prop. 8 distract us from continuing to fight to overturn the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

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I'm back. Well, I've been here, just not in the way I want to be -- until now. has granted me an opportunity to make a difference and to once again voice my opinion on the topics I care about most.

Four years ago, I had a radio show called Coming Out With Reichen. On it I helped people come out of the closet in a more safe and positive way. A year after that started, I produced another television show to accomplish the same goals and, further, to help our community cope with just about every issue we face.

What can I say? Hollywood is a tough place to keep things alive for any extended period of time. I'm thankful, however, for the time that those ideas were a part of my life. I have many more ideas that I know will accomplish the same goals, and I'm not giving up. I never will.

I thought it would be appropriate to write, first, about an issue that I've been personally fighting for 15 years. I'm talking about the ban on the open and honest service of gays and lesbians to our U.S. Armed Forces. In 1993 the idea behind "don't ask, don't tell" was to lessen the severity of the absolute ban on an entire group of people from serving. It has failed on all levels.

I am a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and I served our country in the Air Force for nine years. I left the Air Force as a captain because I refused to serve any longer under such an inhumane policy. Since my leaving the Air Force, I've worked to do my part to end the ban and to eradicate this policy that has now resulted in the discharge of over 13,000 of my fellow servicemen and servicewomen. I have been a personal witness to service members disappearing from active duty to find them quickly under the embarrassment of demeaning investigation, court-martial, and termination of their positions in the Air Force and the other sister services. With the termination of their jobs came the termination of their livelihood, security, hope, and pride. We should be no less than ashamed as Americans for allowing this to happen.

As a community, we often focus on one issue at a time as they are thrown at us to be managed. California's Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to revoke marriage rights, is a perfect example. We were forced to raise our voices and our funds to the tune of $41 million in an attempt to keep a right that a group of irrational religious extreme fundamentalists found it necessary to take away. It's a tough fact of life that we can't afford to forget about other issues facing us. We can't afford to allow them to take all of our attention away from so many in our community who need our help.

The good news is that eradicating the ban on the open and honest service of gays and lesbians to our U.S. Armed Forces won't cost as much as a proposition-defeat plan. Don't get me wrong; we need to fund the fight, and the more we fund it, the better off we'll be. But this fight will be more organized if we have a proper plan and can be in agreement on what needs to be done.

There is already debate over whether President-elect Barack Obama should push the issue of ending the policy right away upon taking office, or if he should wait.

We should not wait. Let me explain.

Our ability to end the ban and the current policy hasn't been this within reach in all of the years we have spent fighting for equality. That day will finally be in our grasp when Obama takes office. We have a House of Representatives and a Senate that both hold a Democratic majority. If we were to wait until, say, 2010 for action on this issue, we will be dealing with a midterm election that could change the current progressive situation. This brings our window of opportunity to the immediate and our completion date to 2010. We're talking about a bill (H.R. 1246, Military Readiness Enhancement Act) that will replace "don't ask, don't tell" with a nondiscrimination policy -- a policy that has 149 cosponsors in the House of Representatives. We have yet to introduce a similar bill into the Senate because we've wanted a nonpartisan situation sponsored by a Republican, but now that Barack Obama is in office, it's likely that such a bill will be initiated in the Senate whether a Republican sponsors it or not.

It's time to move.

We can't rest easy, however, just because we have more Democratic control of our legislative branch. There is a clear plan of action that can and will work for us. Repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy must also happen on the level of the Armed Services Committees in both the House and the Senate, both of which hold more conservative leaders, such as John McCain leading that of the Senate. We must focus on the constituents of those who sit on these committees to convince their legislators to change the policy. We must educate -- as condescending as it sounds -- the Joint Chiefs of Staff on exactly how seamlessly this transition to the absence of a ban can be ... how by appeasing public and within-ranks opinion, they're taking a positive step in this situation.

The Zogby Interactive poll of 545 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that nearly three in four (73%) say they are personally comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians. Of the 20% who said they are uncomfortable around gays and lesbians, only 5% are "very" uncomfortable, while 15% are "somewhat" uncomfortable. Just 2% of troops said knowing that gays are not allowed to serve openly was an important reason in their decision to join the military.

Even if someone disagrees with these poll numbers as evidence of a need to change the policy, I propose that had we used a poll of soldiers' opinions in 1948 to decide if black people should serve, we would have had zero chance of voting in such a policy. The only semirational excuse proponents of the ban have used is that those serving who aren't comfortable in the presence of openly gay people would have their morale lowered, therefore hindering the mission.

The problem with this rationale is that we are justifying bigotry, fear, and discrimination for the sake of making someone feel comfortable within their own sphere of ignorance. This is the same rationale we used for decades to keep women and minorities from serving. It was only 12 years ago that we allowed women into combat situations, including flying fighter-grade aircraft.

There are supportive measures in the works already. On November 17, 104 general officers and admirals wrote a letter calling for the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays so they can serve openly, according to their statement obtained by the Associated Press.

"As is the case with Great Britain, Israel, and other nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality," the officers wrote. Their statement also points to data showing there are about one million gay and lesbian veterans in the United States, and about 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in the military.

The case of Cook v. Gates (previously Cook v. Rumsfeld), concerning 12 service members who were thrown out of the military for their sexual orientation, dismissed by a federal trial court, a decision upheld by a federal court of appeals, is now ripe to be taken to the higher courts.

One organization has its arms around all of these issues -- the Servicmembers Legal Defense Network. Now more than ever, SLDN needs our help. Volunteer, get involved, or make a financial contribution on its website, When the ban on the open service of gays and lesbians in our military is lifted, it will not only set a precedent against discrimination on all levels of government for other countries to follow but will set just as many for businesses, families, and all levels of our government here at home.

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Do or Die for
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

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Reichen Lehmkuhl