US: After “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

The Struggle for LGBT Rights Continues

On December 18, 2010, the Senate voted to repeal the 17-year-old anti-gay policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). President Obama signed the repeal into law on December 22, 2010, making it one of the few campaign promises he kept.

But this reform was not handed down from above; it was the result of organized popular pressure on Obama and Congress. The bill’s passage in the immediate aftermath of the tax cuts sellout indicates how Obama hoped to use the DADT repeal to placate angry progressives.

While the repeal still has to go through certifications and a 60-day waiting period, once the DADT repeal has gone into full effect many gays and lesbians in the United States’ largest workforce, the military, can finally choose to be open and honest about their sexual orientation with whomever they choose.

Grassroots Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activists had already shown that they were willing to employ mass campaigns, civil disobedience, rallies and marches, including the historic 200,000-strong National Equality March in October 2009, to demand “Full Federal Equality.”

On top of that, however, was the overwhelming public support — around 75% — for repealing the DADT policy of the Clinton era (CNN Poll 5/25/10.) According to the NYTimes, “70% of surveyed service members believe that the impact [of a repeal] on their units would be positive, mixed or of no consequence at all,” (11/30/2010). Even 58% of self identified conservatives supported repeal, (6/5/2009).

The repeal of the law was not a brave step by Obama toward equality, but instead the repeal of an untenable and unsupported policy in the hopes of winning back support from progressives who are increasingly disgusted with the Democrats’ pro-corporate policies. With a congressional approval rating the lowest seen in Gallup history — at 13% after the November elections — it is clear the eight Republicans that helped to push the DADT repeal also realized they couldn’t continue to maintain a policy opposed even by a majority of conservatives (Gallup poll, 12/15/2010).

Activists Emboldened

The Republican gains at both the federal and state levels in the November elections undoubtedly mean a more difficult legislative environment to challenge anti-LGBT laws. At the same time, however, the movement for LGBT equality is likely to keep growing, with new groups and activists entering the struggle.

Reflecting the growing confidence of the movement, the day after the November elections Robin McGehee, director of GetEQUAL, wrote: “We will hold Democrats and Republicans accountable who fail to come out and lead or actively oppose us on key progressive issues,” saying these included “LGBT equality, pushing for climate justice [and] protecting a woman’s right to choose.” She continues, saying “we’ll continue to take to the streets until we see the political closets of D.C. come crashing down around us.”

In this context, the repeal of DADT is being seen as a victory of the growing protest movement, emboldening activists to push forward. Fresh attacks from an overconfident right wing could, in fact, act as a “whip of counter-revolution,” pushing new waves of young people especially into defensive struggles. At the same time, every half-step or capitulation by the Democrats will also continue to push forward the left wing of the movement, which has embraced the idea of mass struggle and bold demands against the mild-mannered and compromising lobby-based groups who have dominated the LGBT movement in recent years.

Debate: Should the Left Support the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?

Ty Moore, Socialist Alternative (CWI USA)

The growth of the LGBT movement and the winning of important reforms like the repeal of DADT have re-opened old debates on demands and strategy. For example, Bash Back!, a national network of anarchist queer activists, opposes the repeal of DADT and equalizing marriage laws on the grounds that “state recognition in the form of oppressive institutions such as marriage and militarism are not steps toward liberation but rather towards heteronormative assimilation” (from Bash Back! Points of Unity).

In a widely re-posted article (Black Agenda Report, 9/21/10), blogger Tamara K. Nopper argued against repealing DADT, saying that, “[w]hile a sincere concern about discrimination may” motivate those demanding repeal of DADT, “so too does a lack of critical perspective regarding the U.S. military as one of the main vehicles in the expansion and enforcement of U.S. imperialism, heterosexuality, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, and repression against political dissent and people’s movements. Far too many liberals and progressives, including those critical of policies or the squashing of political dissent, take an ambivalent stance on the U.S. military.”

It is true that most of the liberal leadership of the LGBT movement takes a narrowly reformist approach to the struggle, basing itself on the mistaken idea that equality is possible under capitalism. This reformist approach also leads many liberal LGBT leaders advocating the repeal of DADT to wrap themselves in the American flag, hoping this will ingratiate them to the political and military establishment.

While we would join in the criticism of this narrow-minded reformism, we at the same time argue for the left to fully embrace struggles for reform and legal equality within capitalism. Rather than turning our backs on LGBT soldiers, effectively blaming them for the imperialist character of the U.S. military, socialists stand in solidarity with soldiers fighting the anti-gay witch-hunts, firings, and culture of homophobia within the military.

Repealing DADT by no means ends homophobia in the military – this is not possible under capitalism – but it will boost the confidence of LGBT soldiers to assert their rights and create space for a competing counter-culture to develop within the belly of the military beast.

This latter point is critical to understand for any serious antiwar activist. Expanding the democratic rights of soldiers, such as the repeal of DADT, must be a strategic pillar of any anti-imperialist struggle. Throughout history when major imperialist powers were defeated, soldier revolts typically played a role.

The U.S. defeat in Vietnam, for example, was in no small part due to the radicalization of the U.S. soldiers, particularly those looking to the civil rights movement for inspiration. Through the struggle against racism, alongside the generally humiliating, dehumanizing, miserable conditions of military life, soldiers began to organize themselves and resist orders en masse.

Then, as now, the serious antiwar movement fully supported every struggle for democratic rights within the military, knowing full well that such struggles – even when led by politically confused people – created space for independent thought and revolt, undermining imperialism. In a small way, the repeal of DADT will play this role.

As in every struggle for social reforms and democratic rights, reformist mis-leaders will attempt to use any victory as proof that the system works, that slowly but surely a decent life for all can be achieved under capitalism. This does not mean that the left should reject struggles for reform! Our job within movements is to show how victories are always the byproduct of determined struggle, and to use these victories to boost the confidence of working and oppressed people to fight on.

Socialists base ourselves on the perspective that ending racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, war, environmental destruction, etc., is impossible under capitalism. Inevitably, the myriad struggles for reforms, if linked together and carried out in a determined way, will again and again expose the need for a fundamental socialist transformation of society.

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January 2011