As we reflect on an historic year for the gay rights movement, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) stands out as one of the great civil rights achievements of the current generation. The repeal of DADT did not occur in isolation or merely as the fulfillment of a Presidential campaign promise. It resulted from a deliberate, long-term strategy - launched the day after President Clinton announced DADT in 1993 - to put an end to the law by turning public opinion against it. The strategy to repeal DADT was a pivotal moment in the decades-long fight against systemic policies barring military service by known gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) military members, which had by and large focused on the courts.
In a new article in the William and Mary Journal on Woman and the Law, I offer an insider’s perspective on how the law that banned known GLB military members was overturned this year. Turning Points: Challenges and Successes in Ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell documents turning points in the eighteen year fight against DADT. The article details how early victories achieved by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and its military clients through the courts, the administrative system, Members of Congress, the press and grassroots activism turned public opinion against the law, paving the way for DADT’s end this year.
With no seed money, colleague Dixon Osburn and I launched the eighteen-year effort to repeal DADT by starting SLDN the day after President Clinton announced DADT. At this time in history, existing organizations had no plans to pursue legislative repeal of DADT or provide legal aid to military members harmed by the law.
During this eighteen-year effort, SLDN stopped the military’s infamous witch hunts and criminal prosecutions of military members who were suspected of being gay. SLDN acted as a watch dog to hold the military accountable for the first time in history, and mobilized lawyers, civilian clergy and other allies to stop abuses. SLDN and our numerous women clients exposed the use of “lesbian baiting” – an accepted practice of threatening to out women as lesbians, regardless of their actual sexual orientation – as a club to block reports of sexual abuse. In 1999, the murder of PFC Barry Winchell revealed a climate of anti-gay harassment and violence on military bases. The Pentagon’s failure to take action against it, documented by SLDN, caused significant harm to its own credibility. Over this eighteen-year period, SLDN’s guerilla legal work made it increasingly difficult for the military to enforce DADT, enabled military members to fight back and generated political momentum inside and outside the military.
These turning points, and the courageous military members responsible for them, systematically dismantled the infrastructure that supported DADT. They provided indisputable facts about GLB military members and their service to this country that swayed public opinion against this discriminatory law and proved that its underlying rationale – that the presence of known gay people harmed unit cohesion and morale – was a lie. Their example galvanized thousands – friends, family members, activists, academics, “battle buddies” and military officials – to action. By bringing the issue back to the forefront of the national debate, they made the end of DADT possible.
The full Turning Points article with case histories and citations will be posted at scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmjowl/ and is cited as 18 WM. & MARY J. WOMEN & L. 35 (2011).
Michelle Benecke, Esq. is an Army veteran and a founder and former Executive Director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Benecke is a current Wasserstein Fellow at Harvard Law School, a position awarded to those who have served distinguished careers in the public interest.