Ten Years After the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” We Still Have More to Do

By Shane Stahl • December 17, 2020 • 2:07 pm

December 18th marks an important anniversary—10 years since Congress voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which since its inception had made it impossible for thousands of lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers to bring their full selves to their time in the armed forces.  

Even though this policy is no more, there is still work to be done when it comes to ensuring the full LGBTQ community can serve our country in the military—most urgently for current and potential transgender enlistees.  

And even though the military no longer discriminates against LGB servicemembers, there are no comprehensive federal laws that protect them from discrimination in their civilian lives. All lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans—including veterans—are vulnerable to being denied services or barred from public places like shops and restaurants, because 29 states lack comprehensive nondiscrimination protections. 

Instituted by the Clinton administration in 1993, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a policy that was inherently at cross purposes from the beginning; it required that personnel not discriminate against lesbian, gay, and bisexual soldiers who were not living openly, but at the same time allowed personnel to discharge or refuse enlistment to those service members open about their sexual orientation. The official policy stayed in effect from 1993 to 2011.  

Starting in 1998, openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members began to successfully challenge the ban’s constitutionality in court. In 2005, the first legislation that called for the policy’s repeal was brought before Congress. Ultimately, it was Congressional debate about the National Defense Authorization Act (which sets the yearly budget for the U.S. military) that began the process of repeal. On December 14, 2010, the official Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act was introduced. Within the week, it passed with bipartisan votes in both chambers of Congress. President Obama signed the bill into law on December 22, 2010.  

The repeal was only a partial victory, however, as it did not allow transgender service members to serve openly. From 1960 to 2016, there was a blanket ban on any openly transgender person serving in the military. In 2016, hopes were high when the Obama administration determined that allowing transgender people to serve openly would have no detrimental effects. Hopes were raised again in June when the Department of Defense issued a memo stating that discrimination on the basis of gender identity was a form of sex discrimination, and set a timeline for new inclusive policies to take effect.  

However, with a new president elected in November of that year, bad news was to follow. On July 26, 2017, President Trump announced via Twitter that he intended to ban all transgender people from serving in the military. Then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis claimed to have listened to a “panel of experts,” and issued anti-transgender directives based on outdated research and science. Although severely limited exceptions allowed a small number of transgender people to continue serving, the ban would still impact transgender people at-large.  

Four separate cases were filed challenging implementation of the ban. In two cases, judges issued stays delaying the ban’s implementation. However, in a case that went before the Supreme Court, the Justices ruled 5-4 that the ban could go into effect, which it did on April 12, 2020, following a directive from the Department of Defense.  

With the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the opportunity has again arisen for the federal government to remove the barriers that prevent openly transgender people from serving. The President-elect has the ability to eliminate the ban via an executive order; there have been rumblings this could happen soon after the inauguration.  

The bottom line is this: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a horrendously exclusionary policy, and its repeal marked a major turning point for gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members. It took six more years to reform military policy to allow transgender people to serve openly, policy that would begin to be dismantled just over a year later. We must ensure our fellow Americans who are transgender are treated fairly. We must work to eliminate the “trans ban” and allow transgender people to serve openly. Any person who is qualified and able to serve their country should be allowed that opportunity.  

And we have to go further: We have to pass comprehensive, federal nondiscrimination protections like the Equality Act to ensure that no LGBTQ Americans, veterans included, can be discriminated against because of who they are, who they love or what zip code they call home. 

Let’s recommit to this effort as we round the year into 2021. Let’s make sure that our government does right by the brave transgender people who have offered their service to the defense of the country. Let’s make sure all LGBTQ Americans can live free from the thread of discrimination. Let’s be inspired by the words of Illinois Senator and wounded Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth: 

“When I was bleeding to death in my Black Hawk helicopter on that dusty field in Iraq, I didn’t care if the American troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender, black, white, male or female. All that mattered was they didn’t leave me behind.” 

On this important anniversary, we salute all those LGBTQ people who have courageously served and continue to serve our country; and to those transgender people who want the same opportunity, we promise to do everything we can to finally make that a lived reality. 


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