Sept. 20 will mark a major turning point in the fight for LGBT equality, as the military’s anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, a law that bans gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly, will finally be repealed. At least two local events are planned to commemorate the milestone.
American Veterans for Equal Rights will commemorate the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on tonight, Sept. 19, at the Veterans’ Memorial at Piedmont Park from 7-8 p.m. AVER will present a formal Retreat Ceremony to mark the end of the final duty day with the policy in place.
OurSong, Atlanta’s mixed gay and lesbian chorus, is scheduled to perform alongside cantor Michael Veillette, who will sing an original song written by Ingram. The event features an honor guard made up of Colonel Arlene Ackerman, US Army (retired); Staff Sergeant Don Kay, US Air Force, Korea; Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Charles Stevens, US Navy, World War II and Korea; and Sergeant Jack Strouss, US Army, World War II.
Jeff Cleghorn, an Atlanta attorney and board member with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, will host a “repeal day” celebration and fundraiser for SLDN at his home on Tuesday, Sept. 20. A $25 donation is requested for the fundraiser but is not required.
Passed by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the basis for some 14,000 military discharges during its 18 year-history.
The repeal effort was one of the final acts of the Democratically controlled 111th Congress and fulfilled a 2008 campaign pledge from President Barack Obama.
“By ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay,” Obama said after Congress passed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 in late December.
The act required that the policy remain on the books until the president, secretary of defense and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff certified that ending it would not negatively impact military readiness. It then required a 60-day waiting period before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would officially end.
Certification was issued on July 22, making Sept. 20 the date of repeal.
The end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” couldn’t come quickly enough for local advocates for gays in the military.
Alejandro Lopez, president of the Georgia chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights, said that he once believed the law would never be repealed.
“Even before 1993 when [DADT] came to be, the witch hunt was already going on,” Lopez said of his time in the military. “I was a non-commissioned officer who was unmarried and didn’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t fit the mold.”
Lopez said that he was investigated, and even followed, during his time in the service.
“It feels great knowing that other individuals don’t have to deal with this type of investigation anymore,” he added.
National AVER President Danny Ingram, who lives in Atlanta, stressed the need to continue fighting for the rights of transgender servicemembers once the law is lifted.
“’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ had nothing to do with transgender issues, so the repeal doesn’t do anything for it,” Ingram said. “Being transgender is considered a mental illness. Until that changes, the military will not accept or allow transgender people to serve openly.”
American Veterans for Equal Rights will continue to have a presence in the post-DADT military, added Ingram.
“A big part of that will be making sure that veterans get the same benefits as everyone else, dealing with partner benefits and all the other benefits that military personnel get,” Ingram said. “Basically, we’re talking about the marriage issue.”
SLDN will also continue to provide legal support to gay soldiers after the repeal date, focusing on discrimination that servicemembers may face after coming out. In addition, the organization says it will work toward improving policies that affect LGBT soldiers.