WASHINGTON — The military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law ends Tuesday, allowing openly gay troops to serve for the first time and marking one of the most dramatic personnel changes in U.S. military history.
But despite the significance, defense officials have spent weeks downplaying the actual impact of the change, insisting that for gay and straight troops the repeal will still mean business as usual.
Pentagon leaders and the White House on Tuesday will acknowledge the end of the 18-year-old law — the basis for the dismissal of roughly 14,000 gay servicemembers — and last year’s contentious debate repealing it.
But, other than a few news conferences, no formal military events or instructions are planned. Pentagon officials said Monday that 2.25 million troops have completed training briefings on the rule changes since last spring, and no new sessions or advisories are expected after repeal.
In July, when the Sept. 20 repeal date was announced, Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson said that he expected the changeover to be “as smooth as possible. What we believe we’ve done here is create a sexual-orientation-neutral environment in which all members can operate, do their jobs, serve in their units with dignity, professionalism and respect.”
Last week, AFRICOM Commander Gen. Carter Ham, who co-chaired a military study on implementing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, said he saw the actual end date of the law as a non-issue. “My hope, my expectation, my belief is that it will be pretty inconsequential.”
Service officials will enact a handful of related policy changes in coming weeks, updating regulations barring dismissal of or discrimination against gay servicemembers. Department rules bar collection of any data related to troops’ sexual orientation, so new recruits won’t be asked if they’re gay or refused if they declare that.
Those already in the military who come out to co-workers will no longer face the possibility of dismissal, although that threat has lessened in recent months. In the last 11 months, only four servicemembers were kicked out under the rule, all at their own request.
Officials at OutServe, an association of more than 4,000 gay active-duty troops and veterans, said that a recent survey of troops currently serving found that nearly 80 percent are already out to military co-workers, with about half of those deciding to publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation in the weeks leading up to repeal. Others told the group that they had no specific plans to discuss the issue, but won’t avoid it, either.
Gay rights groups have planned celebration events across the country and in overseas military communities to mark the repeal date, including one at the Stonewall Inn in New York, site of the 1969 riots viewed by many as the start of the gay rights movement.
But even those plans are somewhat informal and subdued. Earlier this month, the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network issued guidance for gay troops attention celebrations, reminding them to avoid any partisan political events or fundraisers that would violate military rules on good conduct.
“Service members, including those on active duty, should be able to attend these events as a spectator-celebrant and also to participate in them,” the memo said. “They may wear their uniforms and speak as individuals about the importance of repeal to them. … They should not, of course, criticize their commanders (or past commanders) or elected officials or urge the election or defeat of candidates for office.”
R. Clarke Cooper, an Army Reserve captain and executive director of the group, said there is a sense of disappointment that the history of the repeal is being overlooked, but added “for a lot of folks involved, this is already done. Unless you happen to be gay or lesbian, you might not even be aware that Sept. 20 is the deadline for this repeal.”
Cooper also said that in many ways, the lack of any fanfare or dramatic display marking the change is comforting.
“That’s what all of us pushing for a repeal have been saying,” he said. “After the change, it’s really not that big of a deal for the military.”