A retired U.S. Army general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff published an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Tuesday, Jan. 2, supporting the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that bans gays from serving openly in the armed forces.
Four-star Gen. John Shalikashvili, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993 when the Clinton Administration adopted the policy, wrote that he originally backed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because he believed it would have been “too burdensome” to fully integrate gays and lesbians.
But after conducting a series of meetings with openly gay soldiers, he wrote, “I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United the States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces.”
LGBT activists familiar with the issue said the piece is a watershed moment in the struggle to repeal the ban and may presage upcoming discussions in Congress. Though Gen. Shalikashvili is not the first retired officer to speak out against the policy, he is certainly the most prominent and a foremost expert in the area, even more so than Gen. Colon Powell.
“This is a nuclear bomb of gays in the military,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Michael D. Palm Center at University of California, Santa Barbara, formerly the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military. “This is the top general in the whole country, the person who presided over the implementation and first four years of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Belkin said, “saying that he’s looked at the evidence and he’s decided that integration is good for the military.”
Gen. Shalikashvili cited a joint poll by the Palm Center and Zogby International that found 73 percent of service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were personally comfortable interacting with gays and lesbians. The poll also showed that 26 percent favor repeal, 32 percent are neutral and 37 percent favor keeping the ban, though these numbers were not referenced in the op-ed.
Jeffrey McGowan, an openly gay retired Army major who served from 1986 to 1998 and wrote a memoir about his experience with the policy, said four-star generals set the tone for the military, help shape policies and signal what is okay and not okay to Congress.
“Guys like Gen. Shalikashvili are concerned with a couple fundamental principles—they get paid to fight wars and to win wars,” said McGowan, who now lives in New Paltz with his husband. “They’re not going to do anything in the recruitment policies that would damage that fundamental first principle.”
Former Clinton Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, appeared on CNN the day following the op-ed and said that the time had come to revisit the merits of the policy.
“We ought to have discussions, some hearings,” Cohen said. “I think that [incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman] Levin and others will ask for hearings and listen to testimony.”
Former Bush Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld never commented publicly about his views on open service. Robert Gates, who recently assumed the Secretary of Defense post, has neither reacted to the op-ed nor taken a discernible position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Department of Defense did not return phone calls for this article.
Steve Ralls, director of communications for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), said he expected to see hearings in both the House and the Senate during the 2007 session. “Will there be a vote in 2007? I think that’s still in question,” he said.
The House bill to repeal the ban, which was introduced last year by Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), had 129 co-sponsors, six of whom were Republican. Three of those Republicans were voted out of office last November, Ralls said, “But I’m confident with the new Democratic class that’s coming in, that the list of Democratic support is going to grow and hopefully fairly quickly.”
The House bill will have to be reintroduced this year, and Ralls said a Senate bill would also be introduced sometime this spring.
“We have a group of allies in the Senate who are anxious to get to work on this issue, and we’re hopeful that the Senate effort, much like the House effort, will be a bipartisan push for repeal,” he said.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is also exploring a Presidential bid in 2008, has indicated her opposition to the policy on several occasions over the past decade.
During an October meeting with LGBT leaders in New York, Sen. Clinton said she felt “really strongly” that the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy should be changed and that it was hurting the country’s military preparedness.
“There is now a lot of evidence that this is not in the best interest of our national security,” Clinton said. “I’m certainly going to advocate for changing the policy.” Sen. Clinton’s office did not return calls for comment on the general’s piece.
Toward the end of his op-ed, Gen. Shalikashvili did suggest that the incoming Congress should concentrate on more pressing issues such as Iraq before taking up potentially divisive discussions about repealing the ban. But he, as well as others, used the word “inevitable” when referring to repeal.
“By taking a measured, prudent approach to change,” he wrote, “political and military leaders can focus on solving the nation’s most pressing problems while remaining genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the ban. When that day comes, gay men and lesbians will no longer have to conceal who they are, and the military will no longer need to sacrifice those whose service it cannot afford to lose.”
SLDN’s Ralls noted that repeal could mark a significant turning point for the entire movement since no country has granted same-sex relationship recognition without first integrating its military. Federal recognition of same-sex relationships followed repeal of military bans in The Netherlands, Canada and Great Britain, to name a few.
“Gen. Shalikashvili moved forward not just the issue of gay and lesbian military service but the issue of gay and lesbian equality as a whole,” Ralls said.