Peter Tatchell: What is stopping the President from striking down this ban?

Monday 12 October 2009 00:00

Over the weekend, President Obama pledged, yet again, to repeal the ban on openly lesbian and gay people serving in the US armed forces. As in the past, he offered no time-scale, just promises, promises.

While urging gay people to show patience and understanding, the President gave no explanation as to why he can’t tomorrow strike down the ban by executive order, in the same way that Harry Truman ended, overnight, racial segregation in the military in 1948.

If there is a will, there is a way. Does Obama have the will?

In June, the highest ranking openly gay person in the White House team, John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management, suggested that gay equality laws will have to wait, possibly until near the end of the president’s second term – presumably around 2016.

What’s holding back Obama? His reticence to lift the military ban can’t be due to public opposition. More than two-thirds of the American people want it lifted, according to a Gallup poll in May. Is the president afraid that straight soldiers will resign if the restrictions on gay service are repealed? That’s what some British top brass feared when the UK allowed gay soldiers, but the resignations never happened.

The truth is that the gay ban is underming military efficiency. It often allows homophobic harassment to pass unchecked and this harassment damages unit cohesion and morale. A study this year by Cornell University also found that gay personnel ordered to hide their sexuality perform worse than those who were not ordered to do so.

To optimise military recruitment and effectiveness, General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton, now believes that gay people should be allowed to serve openly. Even a former hardline opponent, ex-US Secretary of State Colin Powell, has come out in favour of reviewing the gay exclusion policy.

Nearly 13,000 lesbian and gay service personnel have been dismissed since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ rule was introduced by President Clinton in 1993. Those ousted include dozens of key Arab linguists, who were in short supply at the time. Some critics fear their expulsion may have undermined US efforts to combat domestic and international terrorism.

In the last year alone, over 600 lesbian and gay personnel were sacked, a disroportionate number of them women and ethnic minorities. These competent servicemen and women lost their jobs, homes and pensions.

Moreover, the threat of dismissal encourages secrecy, which can result in the unchecked blackmail, bullying and sexual assault of closeted gay soldiers. Yet Obama still offers only vague promises of eventual repeal.

One of the few things the US has in common with the Iranian theocracy is its ban on openly gay people serving in the armed forces. Even the former dictatorship of Uruguay this summer lifted its prohibition on gay military personnel.

Obama’s failure to honour his pre-election pledge to end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is symptomatic of his broader failure to remedy homophobic discrimination on a whole range of issues. In his bid to not alienate religious and republican right-wingers, the Oval Office has put gay rights on the back-burner.

In June, in a case before the US Supreme Court, the Obama administration used similar arguments to the Bush presidency to defend the federal ban on same-sex marriage and to deny federal benefits to a same-sex couple lawfully married in Califiornia. It argued that the same-sex marriage ban was justified because it saved the government money and that denying gays the right to marry was not discriminatory because other forms of marriage were also prohibited, such as marriages involving incest and children.

When Obama announced his Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in February, he stacked it with anti-gay conservative evangelicals and refused to repeal the Bush executive order permitting discrimination against gay people by religious groups receiving federal funds. Faith-based projects continue to be legally entitled to practice homophobic discrimination in employment, housing and service provision, thanks to the Obama White House.

Right now, the president’s gay rights policy seems to be: Yes, we could. But no, we won’t.

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