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How We Won

What Was DADT Really About?

By Aaron Belkin

I worked on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) repeal for more than a decade, and as can be expected, some days were better than others. When times were tough, I sometimes consoled myself with imaginations about what I’d say when we finally won. I imagined a large auditorium filled with cheering people, a celebration (with balloons!) sponsored by all the pro-repeal groups. I would deliver a speech honoring all the people who fought for equality, but also featuring candid rhetoric about folks like Colin Powell who stood in the way of equality.

Maybe that fantasy was silly. But while I always knew that victory was inevitable, there was no way to predict when it would happen. And I had promised my donors and colleagues that I would remain in the fight until the end, even if it took twenty years. So, on those days when there was not much light at the end of the tunnel, I needed some way to remain hopeful. And my pretend speech was a kind of crutch to lean on.

Now that DADT repeal has become a reality, I’m seeing that there aren’t many opportunities to give speeches to cheering throngs. But I still want to take a moment to reflect on what DADT was really about. In too many cases in American history, a civil rights victory is finally achieved after a long struggle, and then people move on without learning the right lessons.

The true significance of DADT wasn’t only the shamefulness of allowing government policy to be driven by homophobia. Even more broadly, DADT was the latest example of the politics of paranoia, a toxic and divisive tradition that has reared its ugly head time and again throughout American history. The politics of paranoia is all about exaggerating the threat posed by some harmless minority that is depicted as a danger to the American way of life. Examples include red baiting in the 1950’s and anti-immigrant xenophobia now.

If we’re going to stand any chance of avoiding or softening the paranoid strain in our politics, we have to acknowledge that aspect of our culture honestly and engage in a national conversation about it. That’s why it’s so important to understand DADT in the broader context of paranoia, rather than the phony debate about unit cohesion and military readiness.

Although I never did get to deliver my grand speech about all of this, I did have the gratifying experience of confronting Elaine Donnelly with my ideas about paranoia during a debate that we held in front of 500 Air Force officers at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. For those readers who don’t know who Donnelly is, she is the head of the so-called Center for Military Readiness, the leading voice against equality for gay and lesbian service members.

Aaron Belkin and Elaine Donnelly debate DADT repeal at the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Ala., 2010.

Prior to our recent debate, Donnelly and I last debated on Catholic Family Radio more than a decade ago, in 1999, and the encounter was jarring because she interrupted me on numerous occasions and made outrageous claims that if DADT were repealed, straight troops would shoot gay officers in the back of the head. (No, I’m not exaggerating). After that radio broadcast, Donnelly refused to debate or even talk to me or, as far as I can tell, anyone else in the repeal community, for more than ten years. But she finally agreed to the Maxwell session in the summer of 2010, just as the Senate Armed Services Committee was voting whether or not to affix repeal language to the 2011 Defense Authorization bill.

In more than 30 previous lectures at military universities, I had always tried to be dispassionate and to focus on the research about unit cohesion and military readiness. But at the time of my debate with Donnelly, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, had already testified that DADT undermines the military’s integrity. I thought there was a pretty good chance that we were going to win at some point soon. I felt it was time to go beyond unit cohesion and address the deeper, paranoid basis of opposition to DADT repeal. So, in my prepared remarks, rather than walking through the social science research, I expanded on my argument about paranoia and DADT.

The audience was predisposed to support Donnelly’s point of view and to discount mine. This was, after all, Alabama. And in fact, while audience members questioned me in polite and respectful ways, some of them tried to trip me up (Our society places a moral taboo on many sexual practices. Why should the taboo against homosexuality be lifted, and not the taboo against bigamy or bestiality?). No one pitched me a softball or asked Donnelly a hard question.

But Donnelly made several mistakes that alienated audience members, and by the end of the session, they were chatting among themselves whenever she spoke, yet you could hear a pin drop whenever I spoke. Perhaps her biggest error was cutting me off in the middle of a sentence to make a point. I let her finish her interruption, and then I said that although I had not put any preconditions on the event, I would favor a ground rule that we shouldn’t interrupt one another. As a high-strung Jew, I couldn’t care less about interruptions. But I knew that officers value good manners, and when I asked for the ground rule, the audience erupted in applause.

Near the end of the session, the moderator unexpectedly asked me if I had any concluding remarks. I knew that there were foreign officers in the audience, so I asked if representatives from Canada, Australia and Britain would take the microphone and say whether any of Donnelly’s dire predictions about the disastrous consequences that would follow from repeal had come to pass in their militaries. One by one, they stood up and said that nothing bad had happened in their countries post-repeal. The British officer added that there were probably 20 gay and lesbian officers in the audience that day who didn’t have a voice of their own, and that once the rest of the audience got to know who they are, they would realize that they have a lot in common. The Australian officer suggested that he was offended by some of the terminology that had been used during the debate including the phrases “gay agenda,” “special class” and “new forms of sexual misconduct.”

Interestingly enough, the Air Force filmed our session and was planning to give Donnelly and me a copy of the DVD. We even filled out release forms beforehand. But the commandant of the Air Command and Staff College was very upset about my appeal to the foreign officers. I’m not sure why that upset him so much. Maybe he thought I had put them on the spot. Maybe he thought that they had embarrassed Donnelly by showing that her concerns about repeal were without basis. From my point of view, the foreign officers were adults who, presumably, had the competence to make life-and-death decisions. And if they didn’t want to answer my questions publicly, they could have simply declined.

While I cannot say with certainty why he was upset, the commandant refused to release the DVD to me. I wanted that DVD badly because Donnelly had shielded herself from scrutiny for so long by avoiding debate, and this was a unique opportunity to illustrate my point about the politics of paranoia. So, I tried every avenue to obtain the DVD, including a FOIA request as well as asking a member of Congress to request that someone in the Defense Secretary’s office call Maxwell on my behalf to get it.

I had almost given up hope of obtaining the DVD, but just this month, I finally received a copy, which I posted at www.HowWeWon.com. (As a courtesy to audience members who may not have wanted to reveal their identities, I blurred their voices and uniforms.) So, if you’re interested in the lessons of DADT, take a look at the video. You can judge for yourself whether you think there’s a paranoid basis to opposition to DADT repeal, and whether you think that’s an important lesson for the future of American politics. And, for a broader discussion of DADT repeal and the debate with Donnelly, see chapter six of my new eBook, “How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’” If you’re so inclined, feel free to e-mail me at belkin@palmcenter.org to let me know what you think. In the meantime, enjoy the video, and happy DADT-repeal to all of you.

Aaron Belkin is author of “How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’” and director of the Palm Center.

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