Congress to Hold Hearing on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Rep. Susan Davis of San Diego has been pressing her colleagues in the House Armed Services Committee to review the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy that bans military service for people who are openly gay. On Wednesday, Davis gets her wish when the House Military Personnel Subcommittee she chairs holds the first formal congressional hearing on the controversial law since it was enacted in November 1993.

Crafted by Colin Powell, military sociologist Charles Moskos, and former senator Sam Nunn, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a compromise between President Bill Clinton and the hard-liners in Congress who wanted to maintain the complete ban on gays in the military. In the 15 years since it passed, according to government statistics, 12,600 service members have been dismissed under the policy (most were honorably discharged), including nearly 800 with skills deemed "mission-critical" by the Pentagon: 322 were language experts, and of those 60 were proficient in Arabic.

Davis says subcommittee members will look at both the personal and operational aspects of the policy but will focus on the toll it takes on those who've been discharged and their families. Among those scheduled to testify is former Marine S/Sgt. Eric F. Alva, the first American wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Alva, who lost a leg when he stepped on a land mine, has since become a crusader for gay rights in the military. On Saturday, a new Washington Post-ABC poll revealed that 75 percent of Americans now think gays who are open about their sexuality should be allowed to serve in the armed forces.

Support for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is split generally now along party lines. Of the two presumptive presidential nominees, John McCain supports it, while Barack Obama thinks it's counterproductive and says he'll work to repeal it if elected. Davis, whose husband served as a doctor in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, is cosponsor of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (HR 1246), which would replace "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" with a policy of nondiscrimination in the military based on sexual orientation. Davis spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about the upcoming hearing and what she hopes and expects to happen as a result. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You've been pushing for this hearing, so what do you hope to accomplish this week?
Susan Davis: This issue is important to a lot of people. We just want to break the ice, to hear from people and start a conversation about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" that has not taken place. I had hoped to hear from the Department of Defense; I wanted to include them in the hearing. We would have liked to discuss with them the recruitment and retention issues that are so vital at this time of war. But essentially all we're hearing from them is that they are upholding the existing law and that it isn't appropriate to comment. So I think it's up to Congress and the American people. We're beginning the conversation.

No one expects that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will be repealed during this administration, so what is the real goal here?
I think we all understand that we aren't going to see this overturned in the next few months, but I would think this will begin a conversation and that over the next few years people will take a closer look at it. We certainly will. It's just time we look at this policy from a real-world perspective, to talk about how it affects real families and how it affects real-world military operations.

Do you think that, if elected, Barack Obama would be able to convince anyone in Republican congressional leadership to vote to overturn this policy?
I can't speak for the senator, but we're doing our job in the House. We shall have to wait and see.

At the hearing, will you have speakers both for and against the policy?
Yes. It was not originally my wish to do pro and con, but realistically, since we don't have DoD representation, we want to bend over backward to make sure both sides felt they had an equal opportunity to present witnesses. Traditionally the majority party has the opportunity to get the majority of witnesses, but we chose not to do that. At this hearing, because the DoD will not be present, we're going to hear more anecdotal information than operational.

Since 1993, more than 12,600 men and women have been separated from the military under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." What message does this hearing send to these folks?
The message it sends is that we are finally going to look at this issue fairly and try to understand the impact it's had on service members and their families, as well as our ability to fight the wars we are involved in today and will be involved in tomorrow. Our interest is to get a better understanding of the extent to which we've separated people who want to serve their country and had a lot to offer. When the compromise occurred and this law was passed [in 1993], I was not around then. There are still legitimate concerns on the one hand because we are in the middle of a war, but more significantly, I think, is the fact that we are losing people who want to serve their country.

Do you not believe that being openly gay could be disruptive and could potentially lead to divisive and dangerous situations in a combat setting?
I think there are instances where that could be true, just as it can be true among men and women who are serving together. There are also issues of morale, and a host of other issues, but my sense from talking to commanders and others in the military anecdotally is that it hasn't turned out to be so critical in that regard. There are recent studies showing that it's not a major issue in terms of the ability of military units to function well. I'm hearing that from younger commanders, especially; they have said that it hasn't been an issue. There is definitely a generational aspect to this.

Do you think it's commonly known that among the 25 countries that participate militarily in NATO, more than 20 permit gays and lesbians to serve?
Most of them do. Britain has had a policy of openness since I think 2000. Israel does, too, and Poland. Most of our major allies in fact do. Our troops have served together with troops from all of these countries, and it hasn't been an issue.

While most polls indicate that a majority of Americans do not favor gay marriage, polls show that a majority of Americans do favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military . How would you explain or reconcile this seeming dichotomy?
I don't know. It may be that the military issue is less threatening to some people than the marriage issue. It also may be that in this country we greatly value those who are interested in sacrificing for our country. Gays and lesbians are as patriotic as anyone else and want to serve, and they have so many skills to offer, from linguists to medics to soldiers. I know a number of medics and others who serve.

What is the status of the HR 1246 , the bill that would repeal this law? Does it have a realistic chance of ever passing?
The bill has been introduced. No markup. My gut feeling is, well, I'm not sure how it will do. I know there are districts where it may meet with more opposition than in San Diego, which I represent. The city, generally, is fairly receptive. This weekend we have the gay pride parade, and it's become a major event with public officials, churches, synagogues and companies showing their support. There is perhaps a greater appreciation in San Diego, over the years people have increased their level of acceptance. But things don't happen at once.

Does it strike you as odd that while you're on Capitol Hill this week discussing this law, an estimated 65,000 gay and lesbian service members will be serving their country on active duty or in the reserves?
Yes, and those numbers will be a part of the discussion, they will be brought out by the witnesses. Percentagewise, it's low, but it is significant in terms of the roles they play, the contribution they have been making. A lot of people are serving today without a lot of concern on the part of their fellow members of the military or their superior officers that there may be a problem. It begs the question: does this policy have merit? Should it remain the same, should it be tweaked, or should it be done away with?

What do you think personally?
I'm a signer on the bill. But before I signed on, I spent some time with commanders and other military people in San Diego. I asked them about it. I tried to get to the heart of the operational issues in terms of ability to do their job. And I didn't get anyone saying it was an issue.