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Gay Rep. Mark Takano wants U.S. to apologize to soldiers booted under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Shoulder of a soldier wearing a rainbow flag patch on his uniform
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Out gay Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) and other Congress members marked the 12th anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) — the 1994 law that banned gay and bisexual service members from serving in the military — by proposing a commission to study the impacts that DADT had on queer and non-queer military members.

The proposal, introduced on Wednesday, coincides with an announcement by the Department of Defense (DOD) to contact military members who were forced out under the discriminatory policies and help update their discharge documents in order to restore their access to benefits that they lost.

Takano’s proposal, called the “Commission on Equity and Reconciliation in the Uniformed Services Act,” would create a 15-person commission to study past Department of Defense (DOD) actions “policing sexual orientation and gender identity in the uniformed services, from the beginning of World War II and onward.”

The commission would gather testimony and hold hearings on the effects these policies had on discharged soldiers’ physical, mental, psychological, financial, and professional well-being, including their ability to access military benefits.

The commission would also study the effects the policy had on straight soldiers, particularly women and people of color who were targeted for their perceived queerness. The commission would issue a report on its findings to Congress one year after the commission’s first meeting.

The report would include suggestions on how the DOD and government can streamline processes for discharged soldiers to update and amend their military records, how the federal government “may offer an apology” to LGBTQ+ veterans and their families, and “appropriate ways to educate the American public about institutionalized and government-sanctioned discrimination.”

Takan’s proposal has 10 co-sponsors in the House and two Senate members, Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Jeff Merkley (D-WA), co-sponsoring the bill.

In a statement, Takano, a ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said, “For decades, Americans made impossible choices of hiding their identity in order to serve our country. We are reintroducing this legislation on the anniversary of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ – a reminder that the wounds of our nation’s history of discrimination against LGBTQ people are still fresh and require remedy.”

On Wednesday, the DOD also announced its effort to contact discharged soldiers, amend their documents, and restore any benefits they lost after being kicked out of the military. These benefits include “home loans, health care, GI Bill tuition assistance, and even some government jobs,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said in a statement.

“We know correcting these records cannot fully restore the dignity taken from LGBTQ+ service members when they were expelled from the military,” Hicks said. “It doesn’t completely heal the unseen wounds that were left, it doesn’t make people whole again, even for those many who received honorable discharges. But this is yet another step we’re taking to make sure we do right by those who served honorably.”

A short history of DADT: Why it happened, and why it was repealed

DADT was instituted in 1992 by President Bill Clinton. Though Clinton initially wanted to allow LGB people to serve as their authentic selves, congressional Republicans and the heads of the U.S. military branches opposed it, so the ban was Clinton’s “compromise.”

However, by 1998, Clinton admitted that DADT hadn’t functioned like he thought it would. The erratically applied policy more than doubled the number of LGB people dishonorably discharged from the military and increased anti-gay sentiment in the ranks. It also led to LGB servicemembers having to lie and stay closeted while they risked being blackmailed, interrogated, and threatened with violence from fellow servicemembers.

Interestingly, the so-called War on Terror, which followed the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, led to the lowest number of discharged gay and bisexual soldiers in nearly 30 years. This was likely due to them staying closeted and commanders not discharging qualified soldiers. Regardless, it undermined the claim that out servicemembers undermined military readiness.

Concurrently, gay activists and groups like the Servicemembers League Defense Network increased public condemnation of the policy, stating that tens of thousands of gay military members had already successfully served with some degree of outness (and no serious repercussions). These groups also noted that the policy undermined the U.S. military’s supposed virtues of truth, honor, dignity, and respect.

In a December 2010 Senate vote, eight Republican senators crossed party lines to repeal the ban in a 65-31 vote. Four days later, President Obama signed the repeal into law. The next year, the DOD created a Support Plan for Implementation of the repeal. The full repeal went into effect on September 20, 2011.

A 2021 report commissioned by the heads of the U.S. military found that repealing the ban had no negative impact on military readiness, effectiveness, or unit cohesion, despite worries to the contrary. At least 32,837 service members were discharged from the military due to their sexual orientation since 1980, according to DOD data.

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