In the wake of Defense Secretary Robert Gates advising Congress to delay taking action to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” LGBT advocates remain committed to pushing for repeal this year, but have expressed differing opinions on the best way forward.

In an April 30 letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), Gates says “in the strongest possible terms” that the Department of Defense must be allowed to conduct its review of lifting the ban on open service before Congress takes “any legislative action.” The report is due to be completed Dec. 1.

Gates says “a critical element” of the review is engaging the armed forces and military families and noted that those in service “must be afforded” the opportunity to share “concerns, insights and suggestions” about the proposed change.

“Therefore, I strongly oppose any legislation that seeks to change this policy prior to the completion of this vital engagement process,” Gates says. “Further, I hope Congress will not do so, as it would send a very damaging message to our men and women in uniform that in essence their views, concerns, and perspectives do not matter on an issue with such a direct impact and consequence for them and their families.”

In a statement responding to the letter, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said President Obama’s commitment to repealing the ban on service “is unequivocal,” but noted the White House is on board with delaying implementation of repeal.

“That’s why we’ve said that the implementation of any congressional repeal will be delayed until the DOD study of how best to implement that repeal is completed,” he said.

The White House didn’t respond to a request to clarify whether this statement rules out an endorsement from Obama on including repeal as part of the upcoming Defense authorization bill or whether the president supports a vote in Congress now to repeal the gay ban, as long as implementation is delayed until 2011.

The impact of the two statements on the effort to achieve legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year remains unclear. Some experts previously said repeal was only one or two votes short on the Senate Armed Services Committee, but that may change following Gates’ request for a delay.

David Smith, vice president of programs for the Human Rights Campaign, said repeal remains possible this year.

“We think it should and can happen this year, and that is what we are fighting for,” Smith said. “We continue to work with both the House and the Senate.”

Smith said HRC continues to lobby the White House for support in the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the best way to make repeal happen following the publication of the Gates letter is working with repeal advocates on Capitol Hill.

“We strongly believe repeal can happen, but this will require the president to lead the way at this critical hour,” Sarvis said. “To put it bluntly, we need his voice and help now.”

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the sponsor of repeal legislation in the House, was quoted in an interview with The Advocate as saying he was “blindsided” by the Gates letter, but still plans to pursue repeal this year.

“That’s my job — to make sure that we repeal this policy,” he said. “After my three years in Washington, I think when folks tell you to walk away, that’s usually a sign that you’re getting close.”

Disappointment with President Obama’s lack of support for a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year led around 300 protesters to rally at the White House on May 2. Six protesters were arrested after they handcuffed themselves to the White House gates.

The rally, a collaborative effort of GetEqual and Queer Rising, was aimed to move President Obama to call on Congress to include repeal of the ban as part of upcoming Defense Department budget legislation.

People at the rally carried signs reading, “Study: Navy has some bigots — Duh!” and “Mr. Obama, What’s the hold up?”

 

Top photo: Lt. Dan Choi, who is being discharged for being gay, spoke at a May 2 protest in Washington targeting ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ (Photo by Michael Key / Washington Blade)

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