Fight for gays in the military isn't ending anytime soon
Plans to end the enforcement of "don't ask, don't tell" are moving along with the goal of ending the ban on gays in the military this year, but the debate sparked by last year's repeal of the policy won't end once President Obama and Pentagon leaders officially end it.
Gay rights activists who pushed lawmakers to end the policy now want Obama to sign an executive order extending non-discriminatory protections to gay and lesbian troops and they're pushing the Pentagon to extend further benefits to their same-sex partners. They also hope Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will remove any mention of homosexuality from the discharge papers of troops who violated the ban, because of the potentially negative impact on future employment opportunities.
Gay leaders acknowledge they face several more years of work to ensure that gay men and lesbians in uniform eventually earn the same rights and protections afforded to other troops and civilian federal employees.
White House aides would not say this week if Obama plans to sign any memo or executive order extending non-discriminatory protections to gay and lesbian troops. Similar documents exist to protect gay federal workers. Aides instead pointed to a new Pentagon policy set to take effect once the ban is lifted that states all troops are "entitled to an environment free from personal, social, or institutional barriers" preventing promotion, and that "harassment or abuse based on sexual orientation is unacceptable."
"The release of the policy guidance is an important step toward implementing repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" White House spokesman Shin Inouye said. "As the president said in his State of the Union Address, DADT will be fully repealed this year."
But the lack of a presidential order means gay troops would have fewer legal protections than their civilian colleagues, according to Richard Socarides, a former gay rights adviser to Bill Clinton and director of Equality Matters.
"If you work at the Agriculture Department as a clerk, you have better protections than somebody in the military," Socarides said in an interview. "They ought to be the same."
"This last final step is not a small matter," he added. "It's crucial that gay military personnel have legally enforceable protections which are lasting over time and no matter who is president and no matter who is in charge of the Pentagon."
Beyond non-discriminatory protections, there are also concerns about pay and benefits for gay troops. The federal Defense of Marriage Act bars the government from extending full health-care and housing benefits to the same-sex partners of gay troops, but Obama has ordered federal agencies to find fringe benefits they can provide to gay couples. Some are now providing relocation benefits or access to day care center and gyms, and gay workers can now take leave to care for severely ill partners.
Pentagon officials plan to conduct a similar review, but they should move quickly, according to Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
"We've moved beyond someone being fired for their sexual orientation, but we're bumping up against the reality that they'll receive different pay and benefits because of their sexual orientation," he said.
Perhaps the most challenging effort is a push to erase any mention of "don't ask, don't tell" from the records of the 13,000 troops discharged for violating the ban. Mentions of homosexual conduct on discharge papers often required for review by potential employers has a potentially stigmatizing impact, according to Sarvis.
"Many will want to see that removed from their records," he said, because they often have to reveal their sexual orientation to future employers -- a potentially game-changing admission in certain parts of the country. SLDN, which provides legal services to troops impacted by the gay ban, has heard from hundreds of gay troops who want the Pentagon to remove references to DADT from their records. The group wants Gates to establish special boards to quickly review the discharges.
The Pentagon is reviewing SLDN's proposal, but any current or former service member may already petition service discharge review boards to reconsider their case, according to spokeswoman Eileen Lainez. They will still be able to do so once the policy ends, she said.
"This is going to be a continual process over years of kind of changing the mentality," said Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, another group that pushed for repeal. "I think that as frustrating as it is for many, we got as good as we were going to get, and people who are realistic about these things understand that. Over the course of the next few years, we'll work on this cycle of continuous improvement."
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| February 10, 2011; 7:15 AM ET
Categories: Eye Opener
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