Today marks the 10th anniversary of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which kept lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members in the closet, as they were at risk of discharge if they came out or were outed. President Joe Biden, who worked for repeal as Barack Obama’s vice president, has released a statement on the date’s significance.
The statement in full:
Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American servicemembers. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which formally barred gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers from openly serving, helped move our nation closer to its foundational promise of equality, dignity, and opportunity for all. It was the right thing to do. And, it showed once again that America is at its best when we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.
Despite serving with extraordinary honor and courage throughout our history, more than 100,000 American service members have been discharged because of their sexual orientation or gender identity — including some 14,000 under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Many of these veterans received what are known as “other than honorable” discharges, excluding them and their families from the vitally important services and benefits they had sacrificed so much to earn.
As a U.S. Senator, I supported allowing servicemembers to serve openly, and as Vice President, I was proud to champion the repeal of this policy and to stand beside President Obama as he signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act into law. As President, I am honored to be Commander-in-Chief of the strongest and most inclusive military in our nation’s history. Today, our military doesn’t just welcome LGBTQ+ servicemembers — it is led at the highest levels by brave LGBTQ+ veterans, including Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly, who served under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I was gratified to appoint the first openly gay Senate-confirmed Cabinet member, Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and Afghanistan veteran who joined the military under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. And during my first week in office, I proudly delivered on my pledge to repeal the discriminatory ban on open service by patriotic transgender servicemembers.
On this day and every day, I am thankful for all of the LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans who strengthen our military and our nation. We must honor their sacrifice by continuing the fight for full equality for LGBTQ+ people, including by finally passing the Equality Act and living up to our highest values of justice and equality for all.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which went into effect in 1994, was a compromise between President Bill Clinton and Congress. Clinton supported lifting what was then a total ban on LGB people in the military, but some senators and representatives from both parties contended that the presence of LGB people would undermine straight troops’ morale and make the military less effective.
Even with the total ban, many LGB people were serving anyway but were drummed out of the service if found out. DADT was supposed to make their situation better, with military leaders advised not to investigate service members’ private lives, but such investigations continued despite that, and so did the discharges of LGB troops.
Biden, as a senator, supported lifting the ban completely and initially opposed DADT, although in the end he voted for it, after having joined in an unsuccessful effort to strip it from a defense spending bill. He eventually insisted the policy had to go, and as vice president he lobbied former Senate colleagues to repeal it.
Both houses of Congress passed the repeal bill in December 2010, and President Obama quickly signed it into law. Military leaders then were tasked with devising a plan for implementation of the repeal, and it finally went into effect September 20, 2011.
Today at noon Eastern, the White House is hosting a virtual event to mark the anniversary and highlight steps the Biden administration is taking to assure equity for LGBTQ+ service members. The event will feature LGBTQ+ government officials who served under DADT, including Jones, the first out lesbian to serve as undersecretary of a military branch; Skelly, the highest-ranking out transgender official in Department of Defense history; Shalanda Baker, secretarial adviser on equity and deputy director for energy justice at the Department of Energy, and a former Air Force officer who was discharged under DADT; and Kayla Williams, assistant secretary in the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs. It will be moderated by Gautam Raghavan, deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of presidential personnel.
The Modern Military Association of America, a nonprofit supporting LGBTQ+ service members and veterans, is also hosting several events for the anniversary. There will be a memorial service at noon at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., honoring Tech Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who came out as gay on the cover of Time magazine in 1975 and was soon discharged from the Air Force. Other events include a social hour from 4 to 6 p.m. at Freddie’s Beach Bar and Restaurant in Arlington, Va., and a virtual celebration from 7 to 8 p.m. Find out more and register here.