'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal: A Possible Timeline

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Last month marked the beginning of the end for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the 17-year ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. But when will the ban be repealed, and how exactly will life change for gay soldiers currently serving, or for those gays and lesbians wishing to serve?

The House as well as the Senate Armed Services Committee voted in May to include an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill that would repeal the ban. It would now take 60 votes to strip the amendment from the bill in the Senate, but that is an unlikely move. Some Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain have said they would support a filibuster of the entire bill, but at present the legislation is expected to come to a vote sometime in June or July.

There are many hurdles ahead, and many unknowns, but here is one possible timeline:

June-July 2010: Defense Authorization Bill vote likely in the House and Senate.

October-November 2010: Answering questions online for The Washington Post, David Hall, development director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said that if the bill passes with the repeal language, he expects President Obama to sign it in October or November. This is hardly the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ however; the policy would remain in effect until several other steps are taken.

No later than Dec. 1, 2010: The Pentagon working group that has been studying the effects of a potential repeal on troop readiness and recruitment will deliver its findings to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

After that, things get murky. But gay advocates, like Ty Cobb, legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, which has consulted with the Pentagon task force, say they are “optimistic” that repeal will happen in 2011.

At some point after Dec. 1, according to Cobb, President Obama would need to deliver a certified statement signed by Obama, Secretary Gates, and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen declaring that they had read and approved of the repeal review. Cobb says the letter would also need to make at least two other points: that the DOD had the policies and regulations ready to implement the repeal, and that those regulations would not harm unit cohesion, troop readiness, or recruitment and retention.

“The first and third part of that won’t take time; it’s the second part—showing that policies and regulations have been prepared,” says Cobb, that will prove to be harder. “That’s where we have to look into a crystal ball to see how long it will take.” Even after those policies are ready to go, there would be a 60-day waiting period to allow the military to prepare for the implementation.

So what are some of the military’s policies and regulations that would need to be changed? One key area, according to a Center for American Progress report, is to “repeal the ban on sodomy in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is rarely enforced on heterosexuals, and replace it with a ban on all sexual acts that undermine good order and discipline.” (In 2003 the Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas, but that ruling has not extended to the military.)

The military also would need to clarify what kinds of nondiscrimination training or nondiscrimination regulations it would implement. And very important for families would be the question of benefits. Gay advocates say everything, from basic health insurance to who gets the first call and the flag when a servicemember dies, will come under scrutiny. Yet with potentially sweeping reforms, restrictions would still apply. Even if a soldier, for example, were to marry a same-sex partner in Massachusetts, the military would not treat the relationship like a heterosexual marriage because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. “However, the easiest route for the military would be to expand the benefits that already exist for civilian [Department of Defense] employees,” says Cobb. (In June 2009, the Obama administration extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal civil-service employees, and that same structure could in theory be extended to military partners.) The Center for American Progress has suggested that Obama reissue the statement to include the military, or that the military should provide the benefits on its own.

Another key change will be to create a pathway for servicemembers discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ to return to the military. “There are so many soldiers discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ who only want to come back and serve,” says Cobb. As many experts have argued, including Charles McLean and P. W. Singer in NEWSWEEK, the expectation is that if all is handled gracefully, the integration of openly serving gay servicemembers will move quickly and not involve a lot of fanfare, and—gay advocates hope—will simply be a nonevent.

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