VOICES AND ECHOES
DECEMBER 17, 1999 • HOUSTON VOICE
Matthew A. Hennie
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'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' don't work
It was a remarkable week for gay and
lesbian Americans, as three of the nation's
most powerful political figures announced
within a few days span that the seven-year-
old policy called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
didn't work and ought to be junked.
Ever since a newly-elected President
Clinton first felt political heat for his campaign promise to end the ban on gays in
the military, we have searched in vain for a
voice in the White House that would make
our case to the American people.
Instead, the Clinton-Gore administration, terrified the new president's "honeymoon" would be squandered, caved to
conservatives from both parties in
Congress. Most Democrats, including
administration lapdogs like Barney
Frank, accepted the resulting compromise, an unprincipled beast called "Don't
Ask, Don't Tell."
Seven years of compelling constitutional challenges left the policy largely in
tact. Lower federal judges would strike
DADT down as a violation of equal protection and the First Amendment, only to
see more conservative appeal courts
restore the policy, deferring to Congress
on military matters.
Seven years of painstaking evidence-
gathering from an unsung gay rights lobby
called the .Servicemembers Legal Defense
Network laid out in detail how the policy,
which was supposed to have facilitated
closeted service by gay men and lesbians,
has in fact resulted in harassment, witch
hunts and a steady increase in discharges.
Memories of the 1993 political nightmare
still fresh in their minds, the Clinton-Gore
administration did nothing in the face of
SLDN's evidence except approve a report
that suggested the rise in discharges came
about because of fake claims of homosexuality, like that claimed by Corporal Klinger
Only in the last 12 months has the
Defense Department made any significant
promises to improve DADT enforcement
and correct abuses.
Those efforts were too little and too late
for Pvt. Barry Winchell. After weeks of
vicious abuse from his squadron—harassment that a fellow soldier testified was
enjoyed as "good fun" by all—Winchell
was bludgeoned to death with a baseball
bat by another soldier embarrassed that a
homo had bested him in a fist fight; a fight
Winchell had not started.
If there were any doubt that DADT and
its proponents share some blame for
Winchell's death, it was removed by further
testimony, from a sergeant overseeing
Winchell's unit, who said he was advised
that under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he could
do nothing about anti-gay harassment.
It was the blood of Barry Winchell, much
like the scarecrow image of Matthew
Shepard before him, that finally moved official Washington. Or was it electoral politics?
Hillary Clinton came first. Appearing
before a gay group, she called for the repeal
of DADT. "There are already gay and lesbian Americans who serve with distinction
in the military. They should be able to do so
without discrimination and harassment,"
she would say two days later.
The president, put on the defensive by
Hillary's attack and making note of
Winchell's murder, took the unusual tact of
condemning his own policy, admitting "it's
way out of whack now, and I don't think
any serious person can say it's not."
Then along came the vice president, who
up to this point had only gone so far as to
urge a more "compassionate enforcement"
of DADT, sounding every bit like the "compassionate conservative" leading the polls
for the GOP presidential nomination.
SAME - SEX
By Gore was soon boxed in on DADT.
His opponent, Bill Bradley, had voted
against DADT in 1993 and had forcefully
restated during the fall campaign his belief
that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Even Barney Frank, under
questioning from Michelangelo Signorile,
called for the veep to reconsider his stand.
Finally Gore relented, returning to the
position his aides claim he had argued
behind closed doors at the White House
"In light of the Winchell case and other
evidence," Gore said on Monday, "1
believe the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy
should be eliminated. Gays and lesbians
should be allowed to serve their country
The dominoes had fallen, and the
Democrats were on board. The
Republicans, meanwhile, are staying quiet
but standing firm. No GOP candidate for
president favors repealing DADT, except
that several would reinstate an outright
ban on service by gays.
That means the debate over DADT is far
from over, especially since President
Clinton has again decided he's got no
political capital to expend on behalf of gay
civil rights, even when it costs lives. The
White House announced late Tuesday that
although DADT was broken, Clinton
would prefer tinkering with it to facing
down Republicans in Congress.
That's the political cowardice we've
come to expect over seven painful years of
rhetoric without action—at least where it
might have a political cost. Can we expect
better from the likes of Gore and Bradley,
not to mention Hillary Rodham Clinton?
Will they put our case to the American
people, or will they restate their position
and hope the conversation changes, the
way the president has to date?
If they choose the latter course, they will
deserve the inevitable criticism that their
position on DADT is political pandering, a
bone to throw to an important Democratic
It's the same sort of special interest politics that Republicans have practiced for
years with the religious right: talk a good
game, do little, and remind them they've
got nowhere else to go with their votes.
Or will they step up to the challenge and
stare down the opposition?
Only time will tell whether our new
champions will put our case to the people
with that much force. But there's more reason than ever for hope.
In their first debate, at Dartmouth
College in New Hampshire, Bradley and
Gore both made eloquent appeals to the
cause of gay rights, putting our claim to a
place at the table in the historical context
of other proud civil rights battles.
Those two New Hampshire speeches went
miles down the road first trod by candidate
Clinton eight years ago. With luck, we'll move
even further down that road, and be treated to
more weeks like we have seen recently.