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After historic vote, focus shifts to implementing plan to let gays serve openly

On Saturday, Congress definitively said the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law will be repealed. Now, the question is when.

When President Barack Obama signs the repeal bill into effect later this week, it will represent only the first step in allowing gay troops to serve without fear of losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Actually abolishing the law will take months, possibly years, to complete.

For now gay troops are left in a murky legal purgatory, where technically they cannot reveal their sexual orientation but practically cannot be discharged if commanders find out about their personal lives.

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Lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called on Saturday for Obama to all but abolish the law immediately, promising not to dismiss any more servicemembers until the repeal process is finalized.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said discharging gay servicemembers now would defy fairness and common sense, and asked for all investigations to be suspended as well.

But White House officials declined to back any such executive action immediately blocking enforcement of the law, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a statement Saturday saying for now, “the current law and policy will remain in effect.”

Sarvis and other gay rights advocates immediately began calling for a swift repeal of the law. Under terms of the legislation, repeal would occur 60 days after the White House and Pentagon certify the results of a study and implementation plan already delivered to Congress.

Gates said that will occur as soon as possible, but only after he and the service chiefs are confident a change can be made without disrupting overseas combat operations.

“Successful implementation will depend upon strong leadership, a clear message and proactive education throughout the force,” he said in a statement Saturday. “With a continued and sustained commitment to core values of leadership, professionalism and respect for all, I am convinced that the U.S. military can successfully accommodate and implement this change, as it has others in history.”

In recent months Pentagon officials have changed the rules regarding dismissals under the law, making it more difficult to start investigations into troops’ personal lives and requiring more senior officials to sign off on the final dismissal of any gay servicemember.

Officials from the Legal Defense Network, which offers legal advice to troops fighting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, said those changes have almost zeroed out dismissals in recent months.

Still, they issued directions to closeted gay troops not to change their routine or reveal their personal lives following Saturday’s vote, because of the remaining legal uncertainty.

Finishing the repeal

Gates appointed Clifford Stanley, defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, to carry out the planning process “methodically, but purposefully.” But he gave no specific timetable on how long that may take.

Opponents of repeal are hoping it’ll be a long, slow process.

Incoming House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., blasted the lack of “rigorous oversight” by members of Congress before the repeal and said “the pace must be driven by the military services and the best interests of our troops in combat.”

Tony Perkins, president of the anti-repeal Family Research Council, said he hopes the new Republican-led House can stall or slow the repeal process to minimize the negative impact he says it will inevitably have on military readiness and recruiting.

But repeal advocates are pushing for the opposite. Officials from the pro-repeal Palm Center said they think certification should take place within a few weeks, with only a few changes in military rules and regulations.

“We expect the Pentagon to shortly announce its demand for a lengthy period of training and education to prepare the troops for open gay service, possibly lasting though much of 2011, before repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ can be certified,” Center director Aaron Belkin said. “In fact, the Pentagon has the capacity to train the forces immediately.”

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said a full repeal “cannot happen soon enough.”

The implementation plan released by the Pentagon earlier this month outline the basic pace of the process.

Pentagon leaders will have to write and adopt new laws regarding discussions of troops’ personal lives, drop existing sodomy restrictions, and review regulations governing sexual harassment. They’ll also need “education and training programs necessary to prepare the force for repeal.”

But the report authors specifically advised against developing new rules regarding housing and bathroom facilities, noting that even if that wasn’t financially unrealistic “separate facilities would, in our view, stigmatize gay and lesbian Service members in a manner reminiscent of ‘separate but equal’” facilities for blacks prior to the 1960s.”

Similarly, the plan does not call for extending housing benefits or pay to the partners of gay troops, saying such a move would be perceived as unfair to unmarried straight couples.

The repeal bill would not mandate that troops dismissed in recent years under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law be reinstated, but would allow them to reapply for enlistment in the ranks. Repeal opponents have said they also expect lawsuits seeking back pay by gay troops kicked out under the law.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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