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Gay Rights Activists Head to Capitol Hill

•  Practice Focuses     updated  2008/03/14 10:42

An army of citizen lobbyists hit Capitol Hill March 7 to make a case to lawmakers about why they feel the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is unfair to gay service members.

The sixth annual Service-members Legal Defense Network (SLDN) lobby day drew about 200 people including gay activists, law students and members of the armed forces.

SLDN sent participants to the offices of all 435 House members. The lobbyists informed House members and their legislative assistants about the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Participants did not visit Senate offices because a similar bill has not been introduced in that chamber.

Retired Army Col. Stewart Bornhoft, who is gay and whose duties included serving as a commander in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, participated in the lobby day because repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been a cause that he’s “felt strongly about for many years,” he said.

“Today is a matter of making the issue visible, thanking those people who have been supporting [the Military Readiness Enhancement Act] and raising the awareness of those who haven’t,” he said.

The retired colonel said the perception that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is working for the U.S. military is a myth.

A figure the lobbyists often cited is that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has led to the expulsion of about 12,000 troops since the policy’s inception in 1994.

Bornhoft said the law is arbitrarily enforced and requires U.S. troops, who are committed to honesty, to lie about their identity. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is “repugnant to American values and detrimental to unit cohesion,” he said.

Bornhoft’s visit to Washington marked the fourth time he participated in an SLDN lobby day.

A 28-year-old gay Boston College law school student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he participated in the lobby day because the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy “doesn’t make any sense” and repealing it is “the sensible thing to do.”

The law student said he intends to join Judge Advocate General’s Corps for the Army or the Navy whether or not “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed. He is pushing for overturning the measure so his friends in the military can serve openly, he said.

“We take small steps — it’s not realistic to think in one day we’re going to pass the bill and change the world, but we keep coming back every year,” he said.

Jane Dolkart, a former law professor at Southern Methodist University, said she attended the lobby day because she has long been a supporter of gay and women’s rights.

She is on the board of the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT), a group opposed to the Solomon Amendment, a federal law that allows the government to withhold funding from colleges if they bar military recruiters from campus. Before the law was passed, some universities banned the military from on-campus recruitment on the grounds that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is discriminatory and conflicts with school policies on non-discrimination.

A SALT committee devoted to gay issues contacted law student groups before the lobby day and encouraged them to come, Dolkart said.

She said she was disappointed that during office visits, lobbyists often did not get to speak to lawmakers themselves. But she said “spreading out over every single member of Congress in a lobbying day is a very effective [way] to highlight the issue.”

Lobbyists offered thanks to the 141 Military Readiness Enhance-ment Act co-sponsors when visiting their offices.

Heath Bumgardner, a legislative assistant for Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), who is co-sponsoring the Act, said repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is at the top of Moran’s priorities.

“He’s going to be pushing for it as much as he can,” Bumgardner said.

Bumgardner said attitudes toward “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are changing and “people are becoming a lot more open to these issues.” Despite this movement, Moran believes a Democratic administration will be necessary to enact the repeal, Bumgardner said.

Hector Arguello, military liaison for Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), was more cautious when listening to lobbyists’ views. Diaz-Balart has no position on the Military Readiness Act, Arguello said. The liaison said the issue of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is difficult because “there is no clear cut solution” to the problem. Arguello acknowledged that he sees a shift in the American public’s perception on this issue and said people are becoming “more understanding.”

Arguello said he thought “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was Pentagon policy and did not realize Congress mandated the policy through law.

An SLDN rally on the Capitol lawn followed the office visits. Rally speakers included SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Norton said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” doesn’t work for the nation on many levels.

“It punishes men and women who are serving the country at a time when we need them the most,” she said. “Who could give me a rationale for keeping such a statute on the books? Repeal the sucker, now!”

Bornhoft said he does not believe Congress will repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.

“In an election year, politics, particularly the presidential politics, are going to distract from any meaningful dialogue and understanding of the adverse implications of the law, [which] requires people to sit down and spend some time focusing on it,” he said.

The Boston College law student said a change in policy is unlikely this year because the Senate has no version of a bill repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and because President George Bush would likely veto the measure.

Despite these challenges, Bornhoft said it is inevitable that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be repealed.

Lobbyists and others interested in changing in the policy gathered March 8 for SLDN’s annual dinner at Washington’s National Building Museum. Speakers included Berkley; Sgt. Darren Manzella, an openly gay medical liaison in the U.S. Army; Tipper Gore, wife of former vice president Al Gore; and Michael Guest, former U.S. Ambassador to Romania who retired last year.

Berkley said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is bad policy “because it robs us of extraordinary, talented people whose only wish is to serve their … fellow countrymen in the service of our nation.”

Guest said both State Department employees and U.S. troops face “a common root” of discrimination.

“Some people … don’t want us to serve as role models, whether as diplomats or soldiers,” he said. “The legal discrimination we face remains in place because too many of our country’s leaders will not take a clear stand for freedom and inclusion and equality.”

SLDN wasn’t the only gay rights group lobbying members of Congress last week. HRC staged its own lobbying event on March 6, focusing on barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, expanding HIV prevention funding and establishing fair taxation on domestic partnership health care benefits, according to HRC legislative director Allison Herwitt.

Herwitt said the lobby day “was a great success.”

Fairer treatment for federal employees in same-sex relationships and ending the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy were other issues that lobby day participants discussed with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Herwitt said.

About 250 volunteers came from across the country to participate in the lobby day.

Herwitt said “the most important meetings” were ones in which volunteers met with representatives who have never voted favorably on a gay rights bill.

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