Posts Tagged ‘DADT’

A Hunger Strike? Really?

May 27th, 2010 1 comment

Lt. Dan Choi, the most visible, articulate and angry activist against the DADT policy, has just announced that he’s going on a hunger strike, even as the compromise hammered out between the White House and Congress is set for vote today.

I’ve written about Choi’s views before, and I have tremendous respect for what he’s doing. It’s not too much to say that the compromise might not have happened had it not been for his courageous leadership. By this I mean no disrespect to the many others — former military like Alex Nicholson and his Servicemembers United group, clear and direct politicians like Patrick Murphy, and other activists (including bloggers) — who have been leaning against this wheel for some time. But Choi (and the GetEqual folks with whom I associate him) might have provided that crucial extra leverage to actually start that wheel in motion.

That said, this hunger strike is a colossal blunder. There are three conditions that must be met before he’ll end it, but none are likely. The first, that the study of implementation be stopped immediately, isn’t even a good idea. (This isn’t the same thing as saying that the compromise law, as drafted, is a good piece of legislation — it isn’t, because it allows for the possibility that it will never become law. I have a post going up later this morning over at on this subject and will link to it when it posts.) Of course the implementation should be carefully considered; allowing openly gay and lesbian soldiers to serve will be a major change for the military, which is still surrounded by a toxic cloud of homophobia. Even for the sake of the gay soldiers, for heaven’s sake, considered and thoughtful implementation is a must.

When I heard Dan Choi speak earlier this month, I thought that he well understood the history and the strategy of activism. It seems I was wrong. A hunger strike is a desperate, last-ditch effort to call attention to an atrocity. It’s an all-or-nothing gambit that can’t be repeated (credibly). In this case, it will be nothing.

A Swimming Story for the DADT Repeal Controversy

March 28th, 2010 1 comment

When President Bill Clinton tried to lift the ban on gays in the military, top brass — including Colin Powell, who has since had a change of heart — defied their Commander in Chief, and argued vociferously and successfully against the move. The resulting compromise, of course, was the DADT policy that may very soon be lifted. According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the policy will be implemented more humanely (principally by making it much harder for anyone to be “outed” by third-party statements), in preparation for its demise within the next year or so.

But not all of the military are singing from the choir book yet. Gates himself now says that he doesn’t favor repeal before a study into the possible consequences has concluded, and others have gone further. Early this month, a high-ranking general (Mixon) urged service members to fight back against the repeal. He was sharply rebuked, but the counter-push has continued.

Just yesterday, CNN reported that the top Marine commander wants separate rooms for straight and gay soldiers if DADT is repealed. From this article, I learned that the Marines, unlike other branches of the military, house soldiers two-to-a-room. Marine Commandant James Conway doesn’t want straight soldiers to be uncomfortable by having to share a room with a gay soldier.

Let’s be honest here: There doubtless would be Marines made uncomfortable by this unique situation. This discomfort shouldn’t be brushed aside just because it is literally homophobia. What’s needed is preparation through education, a clear and enforceable policy about inappropriate behavior, and perhaps a transition period. Ah, but what would such a transition look like? Should straight soldiers be able to refuse a gay roommate? For any reason, or for no reason at all? For religious reasons? There should be a way to get through this change without having to rework all or some of the rooms into singles.

I’m reminded of a friend on the mostly gay and lesbian Masters swim team that I belong to (although I’m not there so much these days). Simone was from Italy (Sicily, to be precise) and had come to the U.S. to study medicine. He was — and is to this day — straight. Since we often swam in the same lane, we became well-acquainted over the first couple of months he was there. And then, somehow, we started a series of email exchanges about how he’d felt when he first joined the team. Paraphrasing now from these more than ten-year-old emails, this is what I recall:

When he first came to Philadelphia looking for a place to swim, he was pleased to learn of our swim team, which worked out so close by. But almost immediately thereafter, he discovered that the team was predominantly gay, and therefore decided he couldn’t join. So he tried working out on his own for awhile, but as many swimmers will tell you, that gets old after awhile. So finally, after a few months, his need for people to swim with overcame his homophobia (again using the term here in the literal sense), and he showed up.

He told me that back home gays were still completely in the closet (I’d concur from my trip to the southern part of Italy a few years earlier), and to the extent the subject was discussed at all, it was as “a bad thing.” So he didn’t know anything, and was afraid to find out. I’d say it took him only a couple of weeks of swimming with us before he loosened up. He no longer bolted from the pool to the locker room without showering. He started to enjoy the endless, between-sets banter that are de rigueur for swimmers (the only way to deal with the pain!). Before long, he started hanging out with us after practice. And I’ll never forget the time that, during the hour swim (an event that must cease to exist), we swam next to each other for about 1,000 yards, matching stroke for stroke.1

In short, Simone had become a team member.

Swimming isn’t the military, of course. Yet there are some similarities. The tasks that call both groups together are challenging, often exhausting. Both work in close proximity, and have occasion to see others’ naked bodies. And I like to think that, with the proper attitude and leadership, the military could figure out how to make their team work once DADT is repealed. It seems to be working fine in every other country that has given it a chance. 

  1. Oh, did I mention that I managed to keep up with his freestyle while I was doing the backstroke? But that’s not important….

Catching up to Reality on Blood Donations by Gay Men

March 7th, 2010 No comments

When Obama was seeking the Presidency, the GLBT community had a well-defined punch list of action items, and he promised big things on all of them: repeal of DADT; repeal of DOMA (although he doesn’t support marriage equality); passing ENDA; passing inclusive hate crimes law (the only hole punched so far). A few others, notably the administrative implementation of the-then recent repeal of the insane prohibition against HIV-positive immigrants, were perhaps further down on the list, but also up for discussion. Conspicuously absent from the mainstream agenda has been an item of interest to the public health community: lifting of the ban on gay blood donors.

So I was buoyed to see that just a few days ago, a group of sixteen U.S. Senators sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging the agency to reconsider its twenty-seven-year-old lifetime ban (“deferral” is the quaint term used, but it’s politely Orwellian in this case) on blood donations for men who have had even one sexual encounter with another man.

The policy is long overdue for an overhaul. As the letter notes, the policy is inconsistent with various other exclusions, and is an artifact of a time when all that was really known of HIV infection — and we weren’t even calling it that, in 1983 — is that it disproportionately struck gay men. Even today, MSM (“men who have sex with men,” which is the term used by the CDC because it focuses on sexual behavior, rather than on orientation) are prohibited, forever, from donating blood if they have had sex, even once, with another man, at any time since 1977. The Senators’ letter points out the many inconsistencies in the policy, including the fact that there’s no exclusion of those who have had high-risk, unprotected heterosexual sex, no matter how recently. Even more absurdly, those who have had heterosexual sex with those known to have HIV are only deferred for one year; not for 33! And “sex” isn’t defined when it comes to MSM: the safest kind of protected sexual acts are, in theory, treated the same as the riskiest.

It should go without saying that none of this can be justified from a public health perspective.

These inconsistencies should be enough to sink the policy which, as the letter notes, has lately been repudiated by the major blood banking organizations, most significantly including the Red Cross. But the problems are much deeper and more serious than even the letter recognizes. A few years ago, I discussed the issue in detail in this law review article. Here, I’ll summarize the arguments I made there that weren’t explicitly raised in the letter.

First, while the CDC is careful to distinguish behavior — men having sex with men — from identity, the FDA policy undermines this sound epidemiological distinction by effectively collapsing the two. By excluding any man who’s had any kind of “sex” (not defined!) with even one other man during the past thirty-plus years, the FDA has created a policy that isn’t about relevant behavior, but about some weirdly expansive view of (gay) sexual orientation. Because if it were about behavior, the line would have been drawn in an entirely different place; say, for a year after specifically identified, high-risk behavior.

Second, the policy undermines trust in public health in a few related ways. Obviously, as a practical matter the policy isn’t enforceable, and the sheer breadth of it has doubtless caused many to ignore it. People aren’t stupid: Gay men who know they have an HIV-negative serostatus might give blood, understanding that they pose no threat. (According to this very unscientific poll over at, almost 200 of 800 respondents admitted to having lied about their sexual practices on the questionnaire.) But by attempting to fence them out, the FDA has sent gay men an unwelcome message that could undermine the community’s trust in other ways. One important public health principle is that it recognizes the long-term value of respecting the dignity of all populations.

Why has the policy persisted for so  long? One argument seems sensible, at first blush: If the exclusion were changed to, say, one year, there would be some infinitesimal increase in the number of HIV-positive blood transfusions (well less than one in a million, it’s estimated), so why do anything to increase the risk? But the “let’s not do anything if there’s a tiny risk of harm” canard — which, by the way, is also prevalent in arguments against marriage equality — wouldn’t be, and hasn’t been, applied to any other category of people, or of conduct. Of course there will be some tiny uptick, not  because of the three-week window period between infection and ability to identify it, which any contemplated new rule would  easily accommodate, but because of the irreducible human error associated with the process: If you add more people, some will get through who should not. But this could be said of any proposal to add donors; it’s just that “MSM” have had such a draconian policy applied to them for so long that the donor baseline is essentially zero for this group.

It seems that uprooting this policy is fairly far down on the priority list for the LGBT community. Indeed, this story seems to have attracted but little attention. But messages matter. The radical, embarrassingly outdated FDA policy sends a terrible signal that ought to concern us. It’s good to see that someone is finally suggesting action. Will Obama back them up?

But What Will the Terrorists Think?

February 12th, 2010 No comments

This article is another reminder of the willingess of some on the crazy right to use head-scratching arguments against any laws that might move members of the LGBT community toward equality. Missouri State Senator Gary Nodler doesn’t want DADT to be repealed, because doing so might compromise the mission of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How? Since fundamentalists hate gays, DADT would increase the chance of terrorist attacks on our troops (and, I guess, on civilians). (h/t

By all means, let’s worry about doing anything that the terrorists might not like. (Nodler later stated, implausibly, that his comments shouldn’t be construed as caring about their reactions.) It’s time to begin rolling back gender equality, both inside the military and in secular society. Fundamentalists hate that almost as much as they do gays and lesbians. (I’m reminded of an old SNL skit, where Anita Bryant (played by Jane Curtin) said that she didn’t know which she hated more, gays or “people who still think orange juice is only for breakfast.”)

This is sadly reminiscent of Heather MacDonald’s concern that legalizing sam-sex marriages would cause African-American men not to marry. Did she have evidence of this? No. Was it a fair reason to deny equality? No to that, too, she admitted. But really, who cares about the actual and documented effects on gays and lesbians when we can worry about imagined consequences, however speculative or inappropriate?

Public Health and Welfare in State of the Union Speech

January 28th, 2010 1 comment

State of the Union

Despite my current frustration with Obama — or maybe because of it — I watched the entire State of the Union speech. I’m sure it’s being endlessly picked apart by all kinds of talking heads, bloggers, and the like. Me, I’m watching the Australian Open. (The indomitable Serena Williams just beat back a tough challenge from the letter-limited Li Na to advance to the final. No news there.) But I do want to pause to grant some limited props to Obama for mentioning two of my pet issues: Public health and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The promise on DADT had generated an anticipatory, bloggy buzz, and it was heartening to hear the President speak to it. I’m confident it will happen. (Missing, though, was any mention of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which I had thought was also likely to pass into law this year. I was reminded that this issue had been raised in a State of the Union as long ago as the end of the Clinton Administration. Can we please get there? The goal seems to shimmer and recede….)

The DADT comment came towards the very end of a pretty good speech, and very close in time to another issue near and dear to me: public health. Of course, everything the President mentions is public health to me (health care reform is just the most obvious example, but I can’t bear to talk about it right now). But to hear him pledge energy, money and effort to public health efforts to fight terrorism and infectious disease — now that was something. My night was made in five minutes.

Now, to bed. Oh, wait…the recently unretired Justine Henin is taking the court….

The AMA v. Focus on the Family

November 16th, 2009 No comments

Last week’s resolution by the American Medical Association that supported overturning the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was widely praised. Somewhat less noticed was the AMA’s conclusion that barring same-sex couples from marrying has negative health consequences. Since employers often tie health benefits to marriage, same-sex couples (like other legally unmarried couples) are left out.

It’s not surprising that married folks live longer and have better outcomes; the deck is stacked in their favor through a host of legal, institutional, and corporate practices. It might also be that entering into a long-term, committed relationship changes behaviors in ways that lead to better health outcomes for both members of the couple; the point is disputed by social scientists, and wasn’t the basis for the AMA’s statement. I’ve written about the issue in this law review article.  One of the central arguments there is that if marriage does good things for people’s behavior (on the average), there’s reason to think the same would be true for gay and lesbian couples, as well.

The AMA’s position elicited the usual response from Focus on the Family. According to spokeswoman Jenny Tyree, this health insurance problem should be fixed without “messing with marriage.” But how? Not by granting benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees under any circumstances, apparently. Here’s what the organization had to say about Obama’s recent memorandum extending a paltry few benefits (not even including full health care, but extending some health-related benefits) to same-sex partners of federal employees:

“The president thumbed his nose at the rule of law and continues to undermine marriage as society’s most pro-child institution,” said Tom Minnery, senior vice president of government and public policy for Focus on the Family Action.

“It’s a settled principle of moral tradition and social science that says children do best with both a mom and a dad who are married to each other.

It never changes. According to Focus on the Family: “Marriage by same-sex couples undermines society. Solve problems in some other way.”

But then it turns out that any other way you might come up with is objectionable, too. Except the ex-gay movement, of course, which Focus on the Family supports and defends (in a “kinder, gentler” guise these days). The AMA has now taken a position next to the AARP now on the wing-nut hit list (which, I regret to say, has been expanded by the actions of John McCain, if this report is accurate). Will marriage equality opponents stop seeing doctors after they “tear up” their AARP cards?

What to do About DADT Before It’s Repealed

October 14th, 2009 No comments

There’s some reason to be optimistic about DADT’s long-overdue repeal; maybe Obama wasn’t just talking last Saturday night, after all. This story about legislative stirring is a good sign. So is the newly “out”spoken military brass; this devastatingly effective essay against the policy by Air Force colonel Om Prakash appeared in Joint Forces Quarterly, and thus constitutes a clear (if not universal) military endorsement of the repeal. (Here‘s a more homely, yet effective brief against these inane discharges.)  Where Clinton failed to get buy-in for his “gays in the military” plan — and thereby impaled into legislation what had only been policy — Obama apparently has been doing the heavy background work needed to bring the military on board.

But no one thinks the policy will be repealed this year, and there is virtually no chance that Obama will issue an Executive Order halting the discharges in the meantime. He could, but he won’t: So let’s move on. Right now, we have the untenable situation that should remind one of, say, being the last to die in a war that’s been declared useless.

For the record, I don’t mind if actual gays use the policy to get out while they still can– come out and get out! They didn’t create this policy, and they shouldn’t hesitate to leave if military life under DADT becomes unbearable.

Most men and women in the military, though, don’t want to get out. Straight or gay, they define themselves as soldiers. (This is what’s most struck me in getting to know a few of those discharged under DADT, especially Alex Nicholson.) And it’s plain unconscionable for people to continue to be shown the door now that the policy looks dead.

My solution? Obama should let it be known, in whatever subtle or more directive ways are at his disposal, that discharges from now on should be limited to clear cases where someone “tells” –otherwise, the policy’s original intent that service members’ sexuality not be pursued should be revivified. This way, Obama avoids issuing an Executive Order, but stops the bleeding. I don’t care whether we know about this or not. (We’ll surely learn at some point, when the discharge numbers for 2009 and beyond are released.) Is there any reason not to do this?

On and On and On….

October 12th, 2009 No comments

Here’s a story you likely know, at least in broad outline:

During his campaign, Obama promises progress on gay rights. Once in office, his rhetoric cools and — to be charitable — he doesn’t seem to be moving very fast. Then he makes things much worse with a dreadful brief his Justice Department files in defending the Defense of Marriage Act. Critics (including this one) erupt.

Chastened, Obama signs a memorandum extending a few lousy benefits to partners of federal employees. Then the lifting of the ban on HIV-positive travelers moves closer to reality. Hate crimes law should be a reality any day now, but other promises, like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)” and (especially) the Defense of Marriage Act remain just…promises.

Then, this past Saturday night, Obama headlines the gay dinner-to-end-all-dinners — the HRC soiree in DC — where he “opens” for the ubiquitous Lady Gaga.1 His speech makes more concrete (but with no timeline) his goal of repealing DADT and of passing ENDA (the federal non-discrimination law).

Some bloggers continue continue to howl. “When”? “Give us concrete times and dates!” In this vein, Andrew Sullivan titles his post on the speech “Much Worse Than I Expected.”2   Others read it differently. Nan Hunter, for example, thinks that the focus on DADT has occluded Obama’s subtle but important move towards the language of moral equality. (Her post is really worth your time; so is her blog, in general.) Sullivan would say (and has, in almost these words): “We know the man can give a great speech. Now he needs to shut up and do something.”

There’s the story. Now the question: Where to stand?

I’m trying to find some way of accommodating these two truths: First, Obama is an advocate (except on marriage). Second, so far and perhaps for good, he isn’t willing to expend much political capital on LGBT rights; so he moves slowly or (perhaps in the case of DOMA), not at all. This is advocacy in name (and soaring rhetoric) only.

Here are a few suggestions to help maintain your sanity. So far, they are working for me:

  1. Focus on the states, where marriage equality will continue to play out. Right now, Maine is hugely important. If Question 1, asking the voters to repeal the recently enacted marriage equality law, is voted down, then the right can’t argue about courts — or, weirdly, even legislatures — subverting the will of the people. Of course, some leadership from Obama wouldn’t hurt in this regard, either. (So far, silence).
  2. Be practical — not ridiculous, as in waiting for 2017 to render judgment, but realistic. If we get hate crimes and ENDA this year, as well as the regulatory repeal of the HIV travel ban, and the end of DADT next year, I’d swallow my disappointment over DOMA (not for long) and congratulate Obama on some actual accomplishments. (As I wrote here in summarizing the remarks of Chai Feldblum and others, getting legislation through Congress is tough because of the difficulty of getting their time and attention.)
  3. Continue agitating, and criticizing the Administration. Consider supporting organizations other than the HRC, at least until they can show something, anything, for their decades of black-tie fund-raising efforts.

Maybe this is too timid, maybe I’m too critical, maybe…I should go to bed.

  1. Who sang a freshly kitted-out version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that stands with the Elton John/Bernie Taupin retread of “Candle in the Wind” (to fit Princess Diana’s memorial) in the “lazy songcraft” pantheon. I’m sure the guests would rather have heard “Pokerface.”
  2. Some context is useful here. Earlier, Sullivan had leveled HRC Pres Joe Solomonese for a letter he’d sent out supporting Obama, and suggesting that we wait until 2017(!) to evaluate his Presidency. Although some of the post is needlessly incendiary (esp. the title), Sullivan was right in the essentials, and it’s hard not to read Obama’s speech in light of the HRC’s bland acceptance of almost anything he says or promises to do.

Voices of Honor Tour

July 26th, 2009 No comments

Just a quick post to encourage anyone and everyone in the Philadelphia area to attend tomorrow evening’s Town Hall meeting on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The event is co-sponsored by the HRC and It’s at the WHYY building (6th and Arch) at 7 pm. There’s also a Veterans’ Roundtable discussion preceding it at 6 pm; this should interest both gay and straight vets.

Tomorrow’s event, kicked off by a press conference  at 11 am featuring local Congressman Patrick Murphy, is the first leg of the Voices of Honor tour. (Find details here.) Murphy has taken on a leadership role in the effort to have DADT repealed.

I’ll be at the 7 pm event — because the event is so important, but also to support my friend Alex Nicholson, who is a co-founder of ServicemembersUnited. Spend a few minutes talking with this interesting and dedicated fellow who was discharged under DADT and be further convinced of the lunacy of the policy. Let’s help make this event a success.

Supplement to Radio Gig on “DADT”

July 1st, 2009 No comments

I had a great time on NPR affiliate WYPR‘s Midday Show today, discussing the indefensible “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” with host Dan Rodricks and Alex Nicholson (whom I profiled here, and who was discharged under DADT).

You can listen to the broadcast here. I wanted to add a quick note to what was said on the radio, though. During one of the breaks, I explained to Rodricks that the policy’s cost went far beyond the gays and lesbians kicked out of the service (or who don’t reenlist). He then asked me to say this on the air, but the chance didn’t arise.

In a point I elaborated from Nathaniel Frank‘s excellent book “Unfriendly Fire,” this policy creates a weird, sexually perilous, atmosphere for gays and straights alike. If “gay” is grounds for discharge — and, really, it is, despite the initial and now abandoned effort to separate “status” from “conduct” — then many men are forced to act like self-conscious incarnations, sometimes bordering on parody, of the Hyper Masculine Male. In one laugh-or-cry story detailed in the book, a guy who was suspected of being gay because of his metrosexuality made it a point to stink up the joint with bad breath: poor hygiene is apparently a buffer against both intimacy and the accusation of homosexuality.

Less amusing are the grisly stories of women either harassed, beaten, or sexually assaulted who are then afraid to come forward for fear — sometimes justified, unfortunately — that by complaining they’ll be seen as lesbians. And once someone has the idea that you might be a lesbian, then any and all “evidence” from musical taste (yes, k.d. laing) to sports interests (do not follow the Dinah Shore golf tournament), to taste in art (I give up, here) can and has been used in the witch hunts that DADT has accelerated rather than stopped.

Until DADT receives its long-overdue legislative interment, the Department of Defense must issue memoranda (and regulations, although these take longer) moving the policy back toward its less vicious intent. (Here‘s a small reason to hope.) Stop asking, stop investigating, take complaints of harassment seriously, train officers and troops alike about respect for all. Enough, already.