'Don't ask' is repealed in historic vote

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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010

The U.S. military will for the first time in history allow gays to serve openly after the Senate voted Saturday to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that has required such troops to hide their sexual identity or risk being expelled from the services.

While opponents said repeal would create a battlefield distraction that could endanger troops, supporters drew parallels to the military's decision to end racial segregation in the 1950s and the admission of women to military service academies in the 1970s.

"This is the defining civil rights initiative of this decade," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "Congress has taken an extraordinary step on behalf of men and women who've been denied their rightful integrity for too long."

For decades, being gay was grounds for discharge, and tens of thousands of service members were forced out after their sexual identities were exposed. President Bill Clinton, who had hoped to end that ban, authorized "don't ask" as a compromise in 1993. More than 13,000 troops have been discharged under the policy.

The years-long legislative debate over the policy came to an end Saturday as senators voted 65 to 31 to send the repeal legislation to President Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to eliminate the ban on gays serving openly. Eight Republicans joined 57 members of the Democratic caucus; four senators did not vote.

"It is time to close this chapter in our history," Obama said later in a statement. "It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed."

The vote came after an exhaustive Pentagon review found that allowing gays to serve openly posed a "low risk" of disruption and that a large majority of troops expected that it would have little or no effect on their units.

Top Pentagon officials - who lobbied vigorously for repeal, in part because they feared that a court-ordered lifting of the ban would be far more disruptive - said Saturday that it would take months and perhaps longer to implement the new policy.

"We will be a better military as a result," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Changing perspectives

Clinton's effort to change the Defense Department policy that deemed homosexuality incompatible with military service was upended by resistance from top military advisers, Congress and the American public. The bill he eventually signed - enacting the policy officially known as "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" - was drafted in part by lawmakers opposed to gays in the military.

Yet public sentiment toward gays in the military has since shifted: In May 1993, just 44 percent of Americans believed gays who disclosed their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military; now, 77 percent of Americans think so, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this month.

In the first two years of the Obama presidency, gay rights activists and others who sought an end to the ban expressed frustration that it was not quickly repealed. Indeed, the repeal failed to advance twice in the Senate this year, and as recently as Dec. 9 it was widely seen as unlikely to survive.


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