BY PAUL SCHINDLER | One year after he pledged to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in his 2010 State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama told a joint session of Congress in his 2011 address, “Our troops come from every corner of this country — they are black, white, Latino, Asian, and Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”
With legislation the president signed on December 22, the policy barring open service by lesbian and gay members of the military will end once the Pentagon establishes policies and procedures that the president, the defense secretary, and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify will not compromise readiness, effectiveness, morale, or retention.
The president’s remarks signal his view that the certification process will be completed in 2011.
The reference to ending DADT was the sole mention of LGBT Americans in a 62-minute speech that was broadly thematic and not peppered with the typical laundry list of legislative proposals. Talking about the issues confronting the gay community, of course, has almost never been part of a presidential State of the Union address.
One of the only other mentions of a specific community in Obama’s January 25 speech was his call to pass the Dream Act, a measure that would offer a path to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as minors but committed to completing higher education or military service.
The Dream Act failed to pass the Senate in last year’s lame duck session on the same day that DADT repeal was approved.
The president’s discussion of DADT repeal brought praise from leading LGBT organizations, along with reminders that much more is expected from this administration as well as tough criticism from some quarters about what was lacking in the speech.
A key player in the push for DADT repeal kept up the pressure on Obama to see the process through to certification quickly.
“Servicemembers Legal Defense Network is pleased the president expects that gays and lesbians will be able to serve their country openly this year,” said Aubrey Service, the group’s executive director, in a written statement. “In fact, we think there should be certification from the president, Secretary Robert Gates, and JCS Chairman Michael Mullen in this quarter. We need to make Don't Ask repeal a reality sooner rather than later.”
Servicemembers United, an organization of gay and lesbian veterans, echoed that call, with its leader, Alexander Nicholson, releasing a statement saying, “We look forward to seeing President Obama's administration move quickly to finish the job of repealing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law by completing the required certification process.”
“Tonight is the culmination of a promise kept by this president,” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the community’s lead Washington lobby group, said in a written statement.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, released a statement saying, “The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which the president noted tonight, was a tremendous victory that will put an end to systemic discrimination against competent, qualified lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members. But let us not settle there. Fact is, the state of the union for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people remains largely one of inequality, as we can still be fired from or denied employment in many parts of the country for nothing other than bias, and marriage inequality relegates our families to second-class status. If the president is truly serious about job creation and boosting America's economic well-being, he must provide leadership and action in helping to pass employment protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and ending the costly and unjust federal marriage ban.”
Others were more pointed in pressing the administration.
“Tonight, President Obama missed an opportunity to lay out an agenda and strategy that continues progress made toward LGBT equality — removing the burden of being second-class citizens and acknowledging our families,” said Robin McGehee, director of GetEQUAL, a direct action group visible in Washington and around the country over the past year.
In a Huffington Post article earlier in the day, McGehee wrote, “We refuse to accept the political excuses that ‘now is not the time’ for 'difficult' issues like equality or that these issues are too 'complicated' or 'controversial' to take on right now.”
Dan Savage, a widely syndicated sex columnist who is the editorial director of the Stranger, a Seattle weekly, in a Sunday New York Times op-ed published January 23, urged Obama to use the State of the Union to “tackle the biggest, most meaningful right of them all: the right to marry.”
With the president trying to focus the nation on his commitment to right the economy, however, making news of that sort, even if he were prepared to take the leap, was never really in the cards.
Obama coupled his salute to DADT repeal with a call to “our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.”
For more than a decade, the Pentagon and Congress have waged battle against some universities with anti-discrimination policies at odds with a military presence on campus over the issue of giving access to recruiters and the Reserve Officers Training Corps.
At least some in the LGBT community do not welcome the president’s call to end that debate.
On January 21, the Students for Queer Liberation at Stanford University, noting that the Pentagon’s Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommends a ban on transgender service members, issued a statement saying, “A re-introduction of ROTC on college campuses (including Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia) that include ‘gender identity’ in their non-discrimination clause is a fundamental violation of policy and an endorsement of discrimination.”
One aspect of the president’s address that captured particular interest in the LGBT community was the presence in First Lady Michelle Obama's seating area of Daniel Hernandez, the out gay college student and intern to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whose quick and courageous actions are widely credited with saving the Arizona Democrat’s life during the failed January 8 assassination attempt against her.
Hernandez was due in New York on January 26 to appear with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a gun control event at City Hall.