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social sciences

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Don't Ask, Don't Tell  
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Although military law experts concluded that the President as Commander-in-Chief has the authority to suspend discharges under the policy, and thereby ending it in practice, Obama--to the dismay of glbtq activists--refused to exercise this authority.

In October 2009, on the eve of the National Equality March in Washington, D. C., in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign, President Obama, under pressure from frustrated gay and lesbian activists, again promised that he would repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but yet again failed to offer a detailed plan or timetable.

Sponsor Message.

During the President's State of the Union Address on January 27, 2010, however, he announced that he would work with Congress and the military to "repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."

In testimony before Congress on February 1, 2010, Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, committed to ending the ban, though they said that yet more studies were needed in order to implement the repeal.

Admiral Mullen memorably explained how he came to the conclusion that the DADT policy was inimical to military readiness. "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," he said. "For me, personally, it comes down to integrity--theirs as individuals, ours as an institution."

In his testimony, Secretary Gates implied that the military might soon adopt a more humane interim enforcement protocol before the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy is actually repealed legislatively.

On March 25, 2010, Gates announced some details of the "fairer and more appropriate" enforcement protocol. Henceforth, he explained, third-party complaints about servicemembers must be given under oath and third parties would be scrutinized more thoroughly to prohibit disclosures by those with vindictive or inappropriate motives. He also struck down the practice of allowing confidential conversations with lawyers, clergy, physicians, and therapists to be used in fact-finding inquiries.

In addition, he announced that only generals and naval flag officers would be authorized to initiate fact-finding inquiries.

Later, in October 2010, after significant court rulings cast doubt on the constitutionality of DADT, Gates said that discharges could take place only with the approval of Secretaries of the branches, all of whom are political appointees. These new policies effectively ended involuntary discharges under the policy.

New Activism

The Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy discriminated against gay men and lesbians so starkly and so openly that it became emblematic of the injustices glbtq individuals experience in American society generally, particularly since those who experienced the discrimination directly wanted only to serve their country.

Its repeal became a priority of the glbtq movement even though the number of individuals affected by it was relatively small compared to those who experience discrimination in the private sector or in the area of partnership rights, and even though the number of servicemembers discharged under the policy declined in its later years, falling from more than 1300 discharges in 2001 to 499 in 2009, owing largely to the need of recruits to fight two wars.

DADT also became emblematic of the difficulties of effecting real change in the United States and of the unresponsiveness of American political institutions to popular will. Despite the fact that large majorities of Americans believed that gay men and lesbians should be permitted to serve openly in the military, the DADT policy proved extraordinarily resistant to change.

Because the policy became such a symbol of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, its repeal sparked a new activism. Legal organizations, academics, and individual servicemen emerged to lead the movement against the policy.

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