Military might: After ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ reform is still needed
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan wants ex-service members to tell about the harm caused by discharges under the now defunct ban against gays in the military.
And the Wisconsin Democrat wants Congress to ask about the harm caused by the ban years after the its repeal.
Pocan and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., want the House Committee on Armed Services to examine the challenges faced by gays and lesbians discharged from the military.
Recently, however, the committee refused to hold a hearing on the bill.
A year ago this summer, the congressmen introduced the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which would help former service members discharged solely due to their sexual orientation correct their military records to reflect their honorable service and to restore benefits they earned.
The bill, according to Pocan’s office, has 113 co-sponsors in the House, including four Republicans. A companion measure in the Senate has 38 co-sponsors.
In a letter this spring to Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who is the chair of the Armed Services Committee, Pocan and Rangel wrote, “Since World War II, more than 100,000 individuals are estimated to have been discharged from the military due to their sexual orientation. Today, thousands of gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans are tarnished with discharge statuses other than honorable. This status affects both their access to benefits they have earned from their service and their opportunities in civilian life, potentially hindering employment opportunities and the right to vote.”
Pocan’s office said even gay service members who received honorable discharges may face discrimination because the “Narrative Reason” for their discharge may refer to “homosexual conduct,” “homosexual act” or “homosexual marriage.”
In the 1992 race for president, Bill Clinton campaigned on a platform that included a vow to lift a ban against gays in the military — a prohibition applied in various ways over the years. But Clinton faced stiff opposition in Congress and eventually offered a compromise — “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The policy allowed for gay people to serve if they didn’t tell, and military leaders were prohibited from asking about sexual orientation.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was not administered as Clinton proposed, and investigations about sexual orientation continued, with service members still losing careers and benefits as had happened for decades before.
The ban was repealed in 2011, allowing gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve openly in the Armed Forces.
A year after the repeal, a study from the Palm Center, an independent research institute in San Francisco, found:
• Only two service members, both chaplains, were identified as having left the military as a result of the repeal.
• The Pentagon reported not a single episode of violence associated with the repeal.
• Pentagon data show recruitment and retention remained robust after the repeal.
• Survey data revealed that service-wide, troops reported the same level of morale and readiness after the repeal as they did before.
• Data also showed trust among troops improved following the repeal.
The transgender front
Still, nearly five years later, the struggle for full equality in the military continues with the campaign to remove barriers to transgender people serving openly.
Last summer, this effort was boosted by a vote of the American Medical Association, which adopted a resolution finding “there is no medically valid reason to exclude transgender individuals” from U.S. military service and urged that transgender service members be provided with necessary medical care “according to the same medical standards that apply to non-transgender personnel.”
The AMA also said the anti-transgender policy is out of date.
Four U.S. Surgeons General — Drs. Joycelyn Elders, David Satcher, Regina Benjamin and Kenneth Moritsugu — reached the same conclusion.
This spring, a Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon and first reported on by The New York Times found that repealing the ban on transgender service would not negatively impact the Armed Forces and would lead to no more than 129 of the military’s million-plus troops seeking transition-related care each year.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, said the Rand report confirmed his institute’s research on the issue. “Inclusive policy will not compromise readiness, will not be costly and will not be difficult to formulate or implement,” he said.
There have been hints the Defense Department, which created a working group to examine the issue, could announce its plan for allowing open transgender service this spring.
Congress likely would play a role in any reforms, and the House Committee on Armed Services would get an early review.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state is the ranking Democratic member on that committee. He’s a supporter of lifting the ban on transgender service, as well as an advocate of equal and fair treatment of gay service members and those discharged because of their orientation.