DADT Ends. Discrimination Continues?

President Barack Obama signs the certification stating that the statutory requirements for repeal of DADT have been met, in the Oval Office, July 22, 2011. i i

President Barack Obama signs the certification stating that the statutory requirements for repeal of DADT have been met, in the Oval Office, July 22, 2011. Pete Souza/Official White House Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Pete Souza/Official White House Photo
President Barack Obama signs the certification stating that the statutory requirements for repeal of DADT have been met, in the Oval Office, July 22, 2011.

President Barack Obama signs the certification stating that the statutory requirements for repeal of DADT have been met, in the Oval Office, July 22, 2011.

Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

President Obama recently certified the repeal of the policy preventing gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Host Michel Martin speaks with Service Women's Action Network head Anu Bhagwati about the changes service members can expect, why Marines were most reluctant to repeal the ban, and why Bhagwati believes discrimination and homophobia will still occur in the military.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, you can spot them from a mile away by their cameras, their fanny packs, their t-shirts and the evil stares they're drawing from locals. They are the tourists who swarm the nation's capitol all year long, but especially in the summer. We'll take a look at Washington through the eyes of visitors in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's been a big weekend in the advance of LGBT rights. The first same-sex weddings in New York were performed over the weekend. But before that, on Friday, President Obama signed an order clearing the way for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." That is the policy in effect for 17 years that has barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military. The ban on openly gay and lesbian service members will end in September following a 60-day waiting period.

To get perspective on this historic move, we turned to former marine officer Anu Bhagwati. She's now the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. That's a group that supports women serving in the military and has been a long-time advocate for lifting the ban. She's also someone we have turned to consistently as the story has developed. And she's with us once again from our NPR studios in New York. Anu Bhagwati, thanks so much for joining us. Welcome back.

ANU BHAGWATI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, the ban will be lifted in less than 60 days. What will immediately change?

BHAGWATI: Well, not much will immediately change beyond the fact that gays and lesbians can finally openly serve. I mean this has been not just a 17-year process, but of course even prior to that decade, before "don't ask, don't tell" became the law of the land. Gay, lesbian, bisexual service members were, you know, clearly serving since the beginning of military history but have never formally recognized as such. There were witch hunts even prior to "don't ask, don't tell," which kicked gays and lesbians out of the military. So this is a huge victory for gay, lesbian, bisexual service members and their families who have been waiting for decades for this day.

MARTIN: Now, your group has done research on the effects of "don't ask, don't tell" over time. And one of your findings has been that there has been a disproportionately high number of discharges among women and people of color since the policy went into effect. On one of your fact sheets from March of 2010, you pointed out that racial minorities make up 29.4 percent of the military, but they comprise 45 percent of discharges under "don't ask, don't tell." Women make up 15 percent of U.S. armed forces, but they make up 34 percent of the discharges under "don't ask, don't tell." Why do you think that has been the case?

BHAGWATI: Well, I think in large part it was not enforced in a consistent manner. I mean bias played a huge part in terms of which cases, you know, commanders cared about and which cases they didn't. So if, you know, a commander held a grudge against a particular soldier or Marine, airman, sailor, he could use "don't ask, don't tell" as a way to get that person out of the military, out of their unit.

So, women who have, you know, long since faced sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, were the target of lesbian baiting in the military. You know, if they refused to say - perform, you know, sexual favors for their boss, they could also be targeted under "don't ask, don't tell" and kicked out of the military whether or not they were gay.

You know, we saw actually a case of a sexual assault against a straight man. And he was kicked out under "don't ask, don't tell." And do, we saw that this policy was used in a horrendous way, not just to kick out gay and lesbian service members, but also to weed out whoever was considered undesirable.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On Friday, President Obama certified the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." We're speaking with Anu Bhagwati of the Service Women's Action Network. She's a former Marine officer and we've touched base with her from time to time to talk about how the policy has been enforced and the efforts to repeal it.

There was a survey, a very large survey of all the services a couple of months ago and it was reported that the Marines, which was the member of the service branch to which you belonged, was the most reluctant to repeal the ban. Can you shed some light on why that might be?

BHAGWATI: Well, the top brass unfortunately in the Marine Corps has occasionally, sometimes frequently, held back progress when it comes to civil rights. And there was also some indication from this survey that a more closeted culture, if you will, within, say, the infantry, and, you know, Special Forces. But as time has proven, when leadership enforces a policy well and consistently, then it doesn't matter, you know, who is in that unit and what's happened in the past, but that that unit will move forward.

MARTIN: I do think it is worth pointing out that this comprehensive survey that was taken of attitudes of active duty service members indicated that particularly the younger members really were quite indifferent to the change on the whole.

BHAGWATI: Right. It's true.

MARTIN: Do you think it's a fair characterization of the findings?

BHAGWATI: I think it is true. And of course we have to remember in the military, of course, the folks who were making most of the decisions are older men, right? They're officers who grew up in a different time and generation and so, you know, younger troops coming in are much more used to, you know, America today in which gays and lesbians are much more widely accepted and, you know, make up part and parcel of American society.

And, you know, you are seeing the 18-year-old kids coming in definitely have a different perspective about America today than the senior officers who lead them.

MARTIN: But have you been made aware of any particular steps that are going to be taken over the next 60 days?

BHAGWATI: Well, no. I mean, it's sort of a waiting time. I mean the last six months were the time when the service chiefs had to make sure that training occurred at all levels in all of the branches of the military. And then it was, you know, kind of an unfortunate situation because that kind of timeframe and that kind of policy was not required, you know, back in the late '40s when African-Americans were integrated or, you know, the '70s when women began to be more fully integrated into the armed services.

So this was sort of kind of a political move as many of us sought to, you know, to prove to the right that, you know, gays and lesbians could be sort of safely integrated. As far as moving forward, though, I think we need some very strong policy changes. I don't think that the training that's happened has been sufficient. I think, you know, you don't change a bigot's mind overnight. You certainly don't change it with forced PowerPoint presentations or, you know, talks from the commanding officer.

It really requires a sea change. And so what we have always been concerned about was, you know, there was a compromise when "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed. Which was that gays and lesbians would not be included as a protected class under military equal opportunity policy. And as anyone out there who has worked on issues like hate crimes knows, you know, unless a group that is targeted because of its specific, you know, class, you know - whether it be race, religion, gender or sexual orientation or gender identity - you know, unless you're protected as such, you can continue to be, you know, kind of a sitting duck, a target for those bigots.

And this is not to say that, you know, leadership will quell whatever it can if leadership is appropriate. But, you know, as we've seen in the military, unless policies are written, you know, on the books and enforced, you know, there will be an unprotected class just waiting to be harassed.

MARTIN: You don't seem as excited about it as I perhaps thought you would be. And is that because you're concerned now that this interim step will actually affect, in some ways be more dangerous?

BHAGWATI: Well, I think the real celebration happened, you know, for many of us back in December, when President Obama signed the bill that would overturn "don't ask, don't tell," but discrimination can still occur while gays and lesbians are openly serving. They can be denied promotions - and gay bashing. Unfortunately, it will continue because it's, you know, a symptom of our society, right? And so we need to be prepared for those cases in which gay, lesbian, bisexual service members are picked on, targeted, harassed or assaulted because they are gay, or lesbian or bisexual. Those are the cases that I'm worried about now.

MARTIN: Anu Bhagwati is the executive director of Service Women's Action Network. That's a group that supports and advocates on behalf of women serving in the military and veterans. And she joined us today from NPR studios in New York. Anu Bhagwati, thanks so much for joining us. Do keep in touch with us on this important story.

BHAGWATI: Thank you, Michel.

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