Almost two decades after its inception, the law banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military, commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), will end on September 20, 2011. Following the procedure outlined in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010(P.L. 111–321), President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen certified to Congress that ending DADT, which ordered the discharge of gay men and lesbians in the military for either personally revealing their sexual orientation or having their sexual orientation disclosed by another servicemember, would not have a negative effect on “standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.” They delivered that certification on July 22, 2011, starting a clock of 60 days until DADT is formally repealed. The 18-year-old policy led to the discharge of at least 13,500 servicemembers, including some with vital skills such as speaking Arabic or Farsi, at a cost to taxpayers that has been estimated as high as $370 million.
During the months since the passage of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, members of the military have undergone training to prepare them for the end of DADT. The training progressed in three phases, beginning with chaplains, attorneys, and civilian personnel, followed by commanding officers, and finally the rank and file servicemembers. According to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the training was intended to “focus on reminding troops to treat each other with respect, that no policy will be established solely based on sexual orientation and that harassment or unlawful discrimination of any service member is prohibited.” Military officials reported that the training process went smoothly and without much reaction from the troops, with then-Secretary Gates commenting that he and other military officials were “mildly and pleasantly surprised at the lack of pushback in the training.” Still, gay men and lesbians currently deployed in combat zones may be reluctant to come out of the closet after the repeal is official, as they have reported that their “colleagues and commanding officers have been using gay slurs or making gay jokes” even after undergoing the mandatory training.
Questions about the day-to-day reality of having openly gay men and lesbians serving in the military still exist, such as whether or not same-sex partners will be able to live in military housing. In addition, the federal government defines marriage as between one man and one woman; therefore, same-sex spouses cannot receive military benefits. Advocates also are concerned that gay and lesbian servicemembers who reveal their sexual orientation may encounter abuse and harassment. As such, Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, has “renewed the organization’s call for the President to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” Still, they are encouraged, with Joe Solmonese, President of the Human Rights Campaign noting that “[f]or far too long, the ban on openly gay service members has harmed our security and tarnished our values. The President’s certification of repeal is a monumental step, not just for those forced to lie in order to serve, but for all Americans who believe in fairness and equality.”