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Gay Rights Activists To Obama: Action, Not Words

January 28, 2010 - by Eric Naing

During last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama once again called for an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military. But his words were not enough for many gay rights activists.

Near the end of his speech, Obama said:

“This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”

This is a promise Obama made repeatedly on the campaign trail and again reiterated last October at a gala fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign. While gay rights advocates were glad to hear this again, many were disappointed that neither a specific course of action nor a timetable were mentioned.

So what exactly could the president mean by promising to “work with Congress and our military” on the issue?

One course of action would be for Congress to pass the Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R.1283). This bill would repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allow for the reappointment of individuals discharged from the military under the law. It currently has 187 supporters in the House, including one Republican, longtime gay rights advocate Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R, FL-18].

There isn’t a corresponding bill in the Senate yet but there are signs that something might move soon. Anticipation that Obama would address DADT started when Sen. Carl Levin [D, MI] was reportedly told by the Pentagon to postpone hearings by the Senate Armed Services Committee on repealing DADT until after the State of the Union.

Though as the health care debate has shown, it might be smarter to bet against this Congress passing controversial changes to social policy. This is why many gay rights activists want this act or similar language instead inserted into the next defense spending bill. A similar tactic allowed hate crimes legislation to pass along with last year’s defense spending bill (H.R.2647). Besides tying the DADT repeal to defense spending, this tactic has the added benefit of being able pass under reconciliation meaning 51 and not 60 votes would be required in the Senate.

Paul DeMiglio, communications director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network thinks this is the best option. He believes that using the defense budget bill is “probably the only and best moving bill where DADT can be killed this year.”

But even this move might not be enough for some. As Commander in Chief of the military, President Obama has the authority to simply halt the dismissals of gay and lesbian servicemenbers with the stroke of a pen.

Lt. Dan Choi, an openly gay officer in the Army, was one of those disappointed by the president’s lack of action.

“I was hoping he might have come in with an executive order, already signed,” said Choi. “He could have simply said, ‘No gay soldier is going to lose their job this year.’”

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