US ban on gays in the military “not first” on President-elect Obama’s priority list

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A group that campaigns to repeal a ban on openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the US Armed Forces has said it does not expect the new Obama administration to deal with the issue as soon as it takes power.

Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States on January 20th, after a convicing win in the November 4th election.

In his first speech to the nation as President-elect, the 47-year-old Senator from Illinois mentioned gay people as part of the makeup of America – leading to high hopes he would put LGBT rights at the top of his agenda.

Given that 75% of the American public have said they want the repeal of the ban on gays in the military, known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it would seem an obvious choice for early attention from the new administration.

However, a spokesperson for the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network, a group that campaigns for an end to the ban, told Metro Weekly:

“There is a very full agenda for President-elect Obama, and we know we will not be first in line.

“To be successful in eliminating the ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, we need a partnership between the White House, Congress and our military leaders.

“We will work for more hearings on the Military Readiness Enhancement Act. It is important that it be done right this time.”

Political commentators in the States have pointed out that President Clinton found himself embroiled in a fight with Congress over gays in the military soon after he moved into the White House in 1993.

As a Presidential candidate Bill Clinton had promised to allow gays to serve, but when he took office he was forced to accept the present policy in the face of military and Congressional opposition.

DADT states that commanders may not ask the sexual orientation of service members.

Gay men and lesbians can only continue to serve only if they do not engage in homosexual acts, and keep their sexual orientation a secret.

Many military officials, including General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton, now believe that gays should be allowed to serve openly.

“Clinton said he would push for repeal and he actually tried hard, he really did follow through on his promise,” said Aaron Belkin, the director of the Michael D Palm Centre at the University of California and one of the world’s leading academics studying gays in the military.

“He was a little bit naive about the political process but it wasn’t for lack of effort, he really did sink a lot of political capital into repeal.

“The White House put so much political capital into repeal when President Clinton took office in 1993 that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congressional opponents realised the White House would have to be given some tiny sort of face-saving bone.

“So DADT in effect is a continuation of the old ban but it sounds a little bit more progressive than the old policy.”

More than 12,500 troops have been dismissed since 1993 as a result of the policy.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly 800 of those dismissed had skills deemed ‘mission-critical’ by the Department of Defence, including more than 300 language specialists, of which 85 were proficient in Arabic.

The cost to U.S. taxpayers for maintaining DADT is estimated at more than $363 million (£182.6m).

In an interview with Gay History Project in September, Senator Obama said he would not use the office of President to abolish it.

“I want to make sure that when we revert “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it’s gone through a process and we’ve built a consensus or at least a clarity of that, of what my expectations are, so that it works,” he said.

“My first obligation as the President is to make sure that I keep the American people safe and that our military is functioning effectively.

“Although I have consistently said I would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I believe that the way to do it is make sure that we are working through a process, getting the Joint Chiefs of Staff clear in terms of what our priorities are going to be.

“That’s how we were able to integrate the Armed Services to get women more actively involved.

“At some point, [you’ve] got to make a decision that that’s the right thing to do, but you always want to make sure that you are doing it in a way that maintains our core mission in our military.”

An estimated 65,000 lesbian and gay service members serve on active duty and in the reserves of the United States military, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network.

It said it knows of about 500 gay Army personnel who are serving openly without any consequences.

Democrat Congressman Joe Sestak, who served 31 years in the Navy, retiring with the rank of three-star Admiral, is one of seventeen veterans in Congress who want to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

150 of his Congressional colleagues have lent their support to the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal the law.

The Clinton compromise wasted vital political capital with Congress that could arguably have been better spent on issues more important to the voters.

When the Republicans swept the 1994 Congressional elections, President Clinton’s next six years in office suffered under a hostile legislature.

President-elect Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal just days after the election:

“Do what you talked about on the campaign.

“If you got elected, that’s what people expect. Don’t go off on tangents where part of your party is demanding an ideological litmus test.”

President Clinton’s first year in office was overshadowed by a row about a policy that was not a campaign issue during his election.

The Obama administration may choose to avoid that fate and concentrate on core issues such as the economy – gay rights may have to wait.