The anti-gay law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally came to an end on Sept. 20 after prohibiting open gays from serving in the U.S. military for 18 years.
No other news event had as much impact on the LGBT community as the lifting of the ban — allowing an estimated 66,000 gay people to begin serving openly — which is why we’re naming the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the story of the year for 2011.
The law came to an end thanks to repeal legislation that President Obama signed into law in December 2010. The bill provided for an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after 60 days passed following certification from the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
After months of training and preparing service members for open service, Obama and defense leaders sent notification to Congress that they had certified an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on July 22.
In accordance with the repeal legislation, the ban was lifted 60 days later.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicmembers United, said the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the result of “persistent hard work of unwavering advocates, especially those who have been directly impacted by this issue, and some courageous politicians over the past six years.”
“As a result, those who continue to serve can sleep easier tonight knowing that they can no longer be arbitrarily fired because of their sexual orientation,” Nicholson said. “Justice has prevailed and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is dead.”
According to Servicemembers United, an estimated 14,346 service members were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” over the course of 18 years before the ban was lifted.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, called the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a “historic milestone along the journey to achieving LGBT equality in America’s military.”
Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT research and communications project at the Center for American Progress, said prior to the lifting of the ban that open service would be significant for many Americans — not just those in the military.
“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal is huge and tremendous, but I think there are much larger implications for society because a lot of people really respect the military,” Krehely said.
Other top national news of 2011: Milestones, controversy, courtroom fights
Obama won’t defend DOMA; Boehner hires counsel
The Obama administration made a significant reversal in policy in February when it announced it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.
“The president has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder notified Congress in a Feb. 22 letter.
Obama’s decision riled House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). In March, Boehner convened the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which on a 3-2 party-line basis voted to defend the law in court in the administration’s stead.
To assist the House general counsel in defending the law, Boehner hired private attorney Paul Clement. The cost of the private attorney was initially announced at a total cost cap of $150,000, but Boehner later bumped up the cost cap to $1.5 million.
AIDS turns 30 as epidemic continues
The mysterious disease that would eventually become a global pandemic turned 30 on June 5.
First identified as an unusual outbreak of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, AIDS startled doctors with the way it targeted “previously healthy” young men and ravaged their immune systems with unprecedented speed.
“Patient 4: A 29-year-old man developed P. carinii pneumonia in February 1981,” read the June 5, 1981, Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC’s first official recognition of what would become known as AIDS.
Three decades later, although medications have lessened the death toll and allowed many to live productive lives while HIV positive, there are 1.1 million Americans living with HIV, and more than 33 million people fighting the disease worldwide.
N.Y. legalizes marriage for same-sex couples
In June, the Empire State became the sixth and most populous state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage when the legislature passed and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed into law a bill legalizing marriage rights for gay couples.
Upon passage of the legislation, Cuomo said New York has “finally torn down the barrier that has prevented same-sex couples from exercising the freedom to marry and from receiving the fundamental protections that so many couples and families take for granted.”
The achievement marks the first time that a Republican-controlled legislative chamber — in this case, the New York State Senate — passed legislation in this country legalizing same-sex marriage.
The law went into effect in the state on July 24.
Clinton, Obama endorse int’l LGBT rights
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Dec. 6 gave a high-profile speech in Geneva, Switzerland, in which she spoke out against human rights abuses committed against LGBT people overseas.
Clinton reiterated that gay rights are human rights and said LGBT people overseas “have an ally in the United States of America.”
On the same day, President Obama issued a memorandum to government agencies urging them to step up efforts against anti-LGBT human rights abuses abroad. Among other things, the memo calls on agencies to work against the criminalization of homosexual acts overseas.
GOP hopefuls tout anti-gay views
Presidential election season kicked off this year as Republican candidates seeking to oust President Obama touted their anti-gay views.
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum likely took the prize for emphasizing anti-gay positions most often in his campaign. In addition to pledging to reinstate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Santorum said, “our country will fail” as a result of same-sex marriage. He also raised eyebrows in August when he said same-sex marriage is like “saying this glass of water is a glass of beer.”
Activists with Truth Wins Out revealed the therapy clinic that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) co-owns with her husband, Marcus Bachmann, engages in widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy.
A total of five contenders — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Bachmann — signed their names to a pledge to back a U.S. constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.
Prop 8 fight continues in California
Litigation seeking to overturn Proposition 8 progressed through the courts this year amid questions over whether proponents have standing to defend the law and whether the sexual orientation of the judge who ruled against the marriage ban should have disqualified him.
In the case of Perry v. Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in January sent the question of whether Prop 8 proponents had standing to defend the amendment in court to the California Supreme Court. The question emerged after state officials declined to litigate on behalf of the same-sex marriage ban.
In November, the California high court issued a unanimous decision that Protect Marriage and other groups could continue the case.
Another challenge to U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision to overturn Prop 8 emerged in April after the retired magistrate told reporters he’s gay and has been living with a same-sex partner for 10 years. Proponents of Prop 8 said Walker should have recused himself.
The Ninth Circuit later heard oral arguments on whether Walker’s sexual orientation should have disqualified him as well as whether the tapes of the trial should be made public. The appellate court has yet to make a decision on these issues.
Top photo: President Barack Obama signed the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in December 2010, but it didn’t take effect until September 2011. (Photo by Michael Key/Washington Blade)