Sunday, December 19, 2010

In a historic vote, the Senate overturns ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

After years of contentious debate, the Senate on Saturday voted to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that blocked gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

While critics, including Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, said the repeal would cause a deadly distraction on the battlefield at a time of war, the lawmakers backing repeal equated the vote to other historic moments including the end of racial segregation among troops in the 1950s and the decision to allow women to attend military service academies in the 1970s.

"It is time to close this chapter in our history," President Obama said in a statement hailing the vote's passage. "It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed."

Yet the repeal is far more than just a single policy shift. The overturning of "don't ask, don't tell" is likely to create a ripple effect in addressing other gay-rights issues, as many states continue to debate issues including same-sex marriage and the right of gay partners to share benefits the same way legally married couples do. With gay service members serving openly, it will become difficult for policy makers to justify, say, withholding visitation rights or survivor benefits to the same-sex spouse of a wounded or fallen soldier.

Still, such questions will surface over the longer term. For now, the Pentagon will address the shorter-term issue of how to go about implementing repeal. Obama is expected the sign the repeal into law this week, but the actual lifting of the ban doesn't yet have a timetable. Under the bill, the repeal will go into effect at the discretion of top military leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been previously supportive of overturning the ban.

But per NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, Defense Department officials said Saturday that the repeal could take in upwards of a year to be fully implemented.

Logistics aside, however, opponents of the gay ban called Saturday's vote a historic victory. Since 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the ban into law, more than 13,000 troops have been discharged under the policy.

But there's been a dramatic shift in public attitudes toward gays in the military over the last 17 years. In 1993, a Washington Post poll found just 44 percent of the public thought gays should have the right to serve openly in the military. Now 77 percent of Americans believe gays and lesbians should have that right, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll released last week.

In 2008, Obama campaigned on overturning the ban, but he was slow to push that policy in his first year in office, a move that angered the gay rights community and many of his liberal supporters.

While Obama will get some credit for overturning the ban—especially when it comes to wooing moderate Republicans on the issue—Democrats in Congress were the people who really led the charge.

The Senate vote was 65-31, with eight Republicans—Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, John Ensign of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Kirk of Illinois and George Voinovich of Ohio—voting "yes."

"We righted a wrong," Sen. Joe Lieberman, who led the fight to overturn the ban, told reporters afterward. "Today we've done justice."