'Don't Ask Don't Tell': How It Was Repealed

Today's historic vote to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell was the result of a behind-the-scenes effort in which gay activists of all stripes banded together—and won the day.

Gregory Rec, EPA / Landov

This afternoon 65 senators, including six Republicans, voted to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the law that barred openly gay soldiers from serving their country. In the obligatory appearance, Senate lead sponsor Joe Lieberman thanked Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Aubrey Sarvis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). "Part of why this passed," Lieberman said, "is that gay and lesbian citizens took advantage of their First Amendment rights and petitioned our government and throughout the country, speaking to senators where they live about why this law should be changed."

That must sound pretty great to the establishment lobbyists at HRC and its longtime ally on this issue, SLDN. It's not easy playing the conventional role in the gay revolution. Two years ago, 50 transgender and queer activists from throughout New England protested the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner in Boston. Among the offenses that triggered the action was the organization's endorsement of Joe Lieberman, then engaged in a hard fight for his Senate seat after losing the Democratic primary to a much more liberal contender. Today, Vic Basile, former HRC executive director and now counsel to the Obama administration's gay director of personnel management, pointed to Lieberman as one of the prime causes in this great victory for the gay movement: "Joe was like a pit bull on this one. He really took it personally."

It is tempting to go right for delete when you get a press release like HRC's, filled with recitations of the hundred thousand emails and the tens of thousands of in-district meetings they arranged. Especially since Lieutenant Dan Choi chained to the White House fence and GetEqual activists screaming at President Obama's speeches make for much better copy. But Lieberman's explicit acknowledgement of their efforts is a salutary reminder that the thousand fathers of a victory can often be found in the grunt work of politics. As David Smith, HRC's vice president of programs, described it, HRC practiced the finest art of lobbying right down to targeted efforts at the swing senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ben Nelson and Robert Byrd (at the time).

Howard Kurtz: Joe Lieberman's Civil-Rights CoupSLDN founder and Chief Executive Aubrey Sarvis, a Southerner and an Army veteran, formerly staff director and chief counsel of the Senate Commerce Committee and then a high-powered lobbyist for Verizon and his own Sarvis Group, must have been invaluable in the sensitive process of interacting with the people running the Pentagon study, which turned out to be extremely useful in the ultimate push. In the runup to the vote today, Congressman Barney Frank speculated that, armed with the Pentagon study, President Obama was likely to order his Justice Department to stop defending the federal challenge to DADT, which had been struck down by a federal judge in California. The prospect of repeal by court case, abrupt and not subject to negotiation or fine-tuning, concentrated the minds of the military mightily and that, in turn, was reflected in the legislature.

The repeal of DADT is actually a reflection of the courage and strategic singlemindedness displayed by every player in the gay revolution.

GetEqual supporter and HRC critic Paul Yandura doubts the politics of repeal were that orderly. "If you know anything about politics," he says, "you know there could have been better ways to have done it. The president had a political strategy," he continues facetiously, "that all along they were going to wait until the last day of the session and then jam it?!" The community understands, he believes, that "now we need an aggressive voice. It was the activists who forced crucial House votes against Secretary of Defense Gates and Obama's written request to not hold it." Even the litigation that hung over the opponents like a sword was an activist move, albeit from the Log Cabin Republicans of all people. They sued to take down the hated regime. They were not willing to wait for the Obama administration and Congress to act.

Activist and establishment, the repeal of DADT is actually a reflection of the courage and strategic singlemindedness displayed by every player in the gay revolution. When the opponents started threatening to hold up the nuclear weapons treaty if forced to vote on DADT, I fully expected to see the advocates fold. Nuclear arms?? How would you like to have your social movement cause a global holocaust? Instead, HRC spokesman Fred Sainz came as close as any lobbyist skates to saying go ahead, make my day: "What some Republicans like Corker seem to be saying is: We will let nuclear weapons proliferate if you let gays serve."

Yandura says a bunch of other activists have been hanging out with GetEqual, picking up pointers on how that group turned up the temperature on this issue. Divided, carping, distractable, establishment, and activist, the gay movement has a lot to teach. Just a year ago, Congressman Bart Stupak threatened to kill federal health-care reform if reproductive rights advocates didn't agree to an extension of the ban on federal money for abortions into an arena it had never applied to—private insurance. The women's rights groups folded in a heartbeat. Maybe feminists should take a lesson from the gay activists and show that they're willing to go nuclear if they don't get their issue looked after. For starters, feminists might consider chaining themselves to the White House fence like Dan Choi did. After all, he learned it from the suffragettes.

Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.