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Ban on Gays in the U.S. Military Set to End

By Roy Maurer  7/27/2011

President Barack Obama formally certified on July 22, 2011, that the U.S. military is prepared for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—the 17-year-old law that banned openly gay men and women from military service—as Pentagon officials confirmed that nearly all service members had been trained in preparation for gays and lesbians serving openly in their ranks.

In a written statement, Obama said the ban “undermined military readiness and violated American principles of fairness and equality,” adding that the military will no longer be “deprived of the talents and skills of patriotic Americans just because they happen to be gay or lesbian.”

Under a bill passed in December 2010 that set up a process for repealing the controversial policy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, along with Obama, had to sign a certification that confirmed the military’s ability to accept the integration of openly gay and lesbian troops. After certification, a 60-day waiting period began before the repeal is to be implemented fully, now set for Sept. 20, 2011.

The certification comes after an extended preparation period sought by military leaders, many of whom initially were reluctant to end the policy. Pentagon officials said they will use the 60-day period to review the possibility of extending some limited health, housing and legal benefits to same-sex couples. Under current law, particularly the Defense of Marriage Act, the Pentagon is prohibited from giving federally financed benefits to same-sex couples.

The Pentagon said that more than 1.9 million of 2.2 million active duty and reserve service members had been trained in preparation for the end of the policy. The department said the training sessions lasted from 45 minutes to 75 minutes and were conducted in groups of 50 to 250 service members. The sessions included a PowerPoint presentation as well as discussions of hypothetical situations. SHRM Online reported on the Pentagon’s training materials here.

At a Pentagon news conference, Major General Steven Hummer, chief of staff of the Repeal Implementation Team, discussed some of the key changes under the repeal.

“Upon repeal, statements about sexual orientation will no longer be a bar to military service. Upon repeal, the services will no longer separate service members under ‘don’t ask don’t tell.’ Upon repeal, former service members solely discharged under ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ may re-apply,” Hummer said.

There will be no changes in deployment or living quarters as gay members will be subject to worldwide deployment while the living quarters will remain as they are today, and commanders cannot physically segregate members by sexual orientation, Hummer noted.

Mullen said certification did not mark the end of the military’s work on the policy change, adding that training will continue and the policy will be adjusted as needed.

A Long Time Coming

Two gay rights groups at the forefront of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal effort voiced their approval of the certification.

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said in a statement, “The president’s certification of repeal is a monumental step, not just for those forced to lie in order to serve, but for all Americans who believe in fairness and equality. We thank all of the brave men and women who have continued to wear the uniform under a policy that forced them to hide who they are. The end of that shameful time is thankfully near.”

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis celebrated the certification of repeal but warned that “repeal is just one important milestone along the journey to achieving LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] equality in America’s military,” and called for the president to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the armed forces. “It’s critical that gay and lesbian service members have the same avenues for recourse as their straight counterparts when it comes to harassment and discrimination,” said Sarvis.

Criticism Not Abiding

Critics of the policy have been vocal since the president’s signing of the certification.

“History will hold accountable President Obama, members of the previous lame-duck Congress, and gay activists who misused the federal courts in order to impose LGBT law and policies that will undermine morale and readiness in the all-volunteer force,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which fought to keep the ban on gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military in place.

Religious freedoms have concerned some critics of the repeal.

“Our troops’ religious liberties are in unprecedented jeopardy because the government has caved in to pressure from small groups of activists to impose homosexual behavior on our military,” the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group said.

“The first casualty may well be the religious freedom of chaplains and service members. No formal protections have been adopted despite many having been proposed,” the group said. “No Americans, and especially not our troops, should be forced to abandon their religious beliefs.”

Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.

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