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'Log Cabin' Republicans React To Ruling On Don't Ask, Don't Tell

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'Log Cabin' Republicans React To Ruling On Don't Ask, Don't Tell

'Log Cabin' Republicans React To Ruling On Don't Ask, Don't Tell

'Log Cabin' Republicans React To Ruling On Don't Ask, Don't Tell

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Military, legal and political officials are reacting to a federal judge's decision to block the enforcement of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that restricts gays from serving openly in the military. Host Michel Martin speaks with Christian Berle of the Log Cabin Republicans, the group that filed the original lawsuit, and Anuradha Bhagwati executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, about the ruling, and where the Don't Ask, Don't Tell debate stands now.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Later in the program, we'll tell you why dozens of states are banding together to investigate the foreclosure practices of lenders like Ally Financial and Bank of America, including the so-called robo-signing of documents that has been alleged. We'll go to a couple of regions of this country hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis. We'll have that conversation later.

But first, we go to a dramatic turn on the Pentagon's don't ask, don't tell policy. That policy has, for 17 years, effectively prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military.

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips declared the rule unconstitutional and issued an injunction stopping its enforcement. She ruled that the policy, quote, "irreparably injures service members by infringing their fundamental rights," unquote.

Justice Department attorneys had argued that a change in policy could harm military operations in a time of war. The administration now has 60 days to appeal, or the ruling stands.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called on Christian Berle. He's deputy executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. That is the oldest and largest group of gay and lesbian Republicans, and that is the group that originally filed the lawsuit.

Also with us is Anuradha Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women's Action Network. Now, that's a group that provides support for and advocates on behalf of women serving in the military. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CHRISTIAN BERLE (Deputy Executive Director, Log Cabin Republicans): Glad to be here.

Mr. ANU BHAGWATI (Executive Director, Service Women's Action Network): Thank you.

MARTIN: So Christian, I'd like to start with you. Broadly, what does it mean now that Judge Phillips issued this injunction?

Mr. BERLE: This is a great day for Log Cabin Republicans and for America, because this is the first step towards gay and lesbian service members being allowed to serve openly.

They have been forced to stay in the closet for the past 17 years to the degree that they couldn't even tell their own mothers if they were in the military and they were gay.

Judge Phillips has enjoined the Department of Defense from enforcing this policy, and at this point, the Department of Justice has not objected.

MARTIN: What's significant about this ruling? I mean, there have been prior rulings, trying to sort of stop the policy. And what's significant about this? It's more sweeping, as I understand it. It's a worldwide injunction.

Mr. BERLE: This is the first worldwide injunction that applies to every member of our armed forces, from the Army all the way to the Coast Guard.

MARTIN: And what were the legal grounds for your challenge?

Mr. BERLE: That the policy violates both the First and Fifth Amendments, the right to free speech both inside, but particularly outside the scope of the military.

Our named plaintiff, Alex Nicholson, was outed because he was writing to his partner in Portuguese, and one of his colleagues saw that letter, recognized that it was Portuguese, thought it was odd that he was writing in Portuguese, read that letter and then handed that in to his commanding officer. That was not conduct directly related to his service in the military, and was found as a violation of his First Amendment rights.

MARTIN: And what is your argument in response to those people who have continued to argue that the military is a distinct institution. It's just unlike other institutions in American society, where these rules might be irrelevant but that don't ask, don't tell is essential for good order and discipline because people live in close quarters and living situations that are different from the ones that exist in civilian life, and in part that is why that this is an important requirement, to maintain certain behavioral boundaries - like, for example, the prohibition on social relationships, intimate relationships with people under your command or that people who are in your chain of command or who are of lesser rank than you, and that they're saying it's that kind of restriction. What is your response to that?

Mr. BERLE: Conduct in between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples should not be tolerated as a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. What should happen is that all service members, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be treated the same. And if their conduct is worthy of charges, then bring them up on charges. But if they are caught holding their partners' hands at Applebee's in Elmira, Oregon, they shouldn't be discharged.

MARTIN: Anu, I'd like to bring you into the conversation to talk about how don't ask, don't tell has affected women and people of color particularly, because your research says that, you know, women account for only 14 percent of active-duty service members, but constituted 34 percent of the discharges under don't ask, don't tell - that's in 2008 - and that people of color also tend to be disproportionately discharged under this policy. Why is that? Why would that be?

Ms. BHAGWATI: Sure, absolutely. And I should add that actually, just last year, women accounted for 39 percent. So there's actually been an increase in the disproportionate discharges of women in the military under don't ask, don't tell.

Women have been disproportionately impacted since the beginning of don't ask, don't tell. I mean, as far back as about 1997, women made up about 22 percent of total discharges that are don't ask, don't tell, whereas the other male counterparts made up almost 80 percent.

But we've seen that even though women are serving at about the same rate, which is about 14 percent of total military forces, their the proportion of their discharges over don't ask, don't tell since the '90s has steadily increased so that now they make up well over a third, almost half of the discharges.

And we attribute that to a few reasons. One, women are hyper-visible in the military. There are fewer women in every unit of the military. You know, in the Marine Corps, women make up only six percent of the forces. So any kind of discrimination that exists in a unit is likely to be exacerbated under don't ask, don't tell.

We find that don't ask, don't tell is often the excuse that commanders use to discharge qualified women and people of color. People of color, for instance, last year, made up almost half of discharges - 45 percent of total discharges.

MARTIN: And they're about 30 percent of the military. But why would that be? I mean, you're saying that women are hyper-visible, and so anything they do is subjected to additional scrutiny. That makes sense. But why would people of color be disproportionately affected? Is it...

Ms. BHAGWATI: We're actually studying the impact of don't ask, don't tell on women of color specifically. The data still has to be synthesized. We have seen, in previous years, that women of color have been disproportionately discharged, and by women of color, I mean Asian-American women, African-American women.

Right now, as far as race is concerned, I mean, racism still lingers in the military. I mean, we believe any time you have a discriminatory policy, you know, that legally bars any type of people, any type of population from serving in the military, it's likely to discriminate against other populations, as well.

I mean, it breed discrimination. It breeds bad behavior. It breeds distrust. And that's what we've seen the policy do, in effect. But, you know, for women in particular, you know, they are subject - and this is both gay and straight women. Lesbians and heterosexual women are subject to lesbian-baiting under this policy, so that women who reject the advances - sexual advances of their male counterparts are subject to further sexual harassment and can certainly, as Christian described, you know, this kind of third-party outing or third-party involvement, you know, regardless of whether the woman is gay or not, can be subject to an investigation under don't ask, don't tell.

And we've seen this across the board with both, again, heterosexual women and lesbians in the military, where they are literally targeted if they refuse the advances of their male counterparts.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about that injunction that was issued yesterday, ordering the military to stop enforcement of the don't ask, don't tell policy. That's a 17-year-old policy that effectively bars gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military.

I'm speaking with Anuradha Bhagwati of the Service Women's Action Network and Christian Berle of the Log Cabin Republicans. The Log Cabin Republicans filed the lawsuit that led to yesterday's injunction.

So Christian, it does appear that the political system seems moving toward repeal of the policies. You know that top civilian and military leaders have come out in favor of repealing the policy. President Obama has made it clear that he does not support enforcement of the policy.

There are those who would argue that this is judicial activism, and since that tends to be a particular concern of conservatives, of which you are one, I'd like to ask whether this is.

Mr. BERLE: I think this policy should be ended by whatever means necessary, and if Congress can act to repeal this policy tomorrow, or as soon as they come back, that will be a great day.

I think that we have not seen a full commitment by the White House and by the civilian leadership out there to end this policy. And I think it's also interesting to note the president, who publicly states he is opposed to this policy, defends it through his Justice Department every day in court.

We could end the don't ask, don't tell policy by simply a phone call from the president to the attorney general saying that he should not appeal this policy. We're fully committed to defending this ruling against a Department of Defense appeal, but...

MARTIN: But I'm asking you about whether this is judicial activism.

Mr. BERLE: I think this is a clear case of constitutional rights, of First and Fifth Amendment rights that should be upheld. And we would hope, and we firmly support legislative action in the Congress, and we support action take in the executive branch of the Pentagon. But we also believe that because this policy is unconstitutional, that it's worthy of challenge in our federal judiciary.

MARTIN: Anuradha Bhagwati, I want to give you the final word here. You've been working on this a long time through your organization. What is your sense of where this debate is going?

Ms. BHAGWATI: Well, this injunction is absolutely historic. There are a number of things that we need to think about, though. One is the White House is being forced to respond, you know, in the next couple of months to this injunction, and they have not responded well in the last couple of years, even though they've sort of said that they disagree with the policy. Certainly, the president hasn't moved to change very much and has deferred to the military, to the DOD on most of this, unfortunately.

In terms of gay and lesbian service members who are in uniform right now, we advise them not to start celebrating anytime soon. It's not safe to disclose your sexual orientation if you're serving in the military right now, because this injunction could very well be appealed and overturned in the next couple of months.

Right now, equal opportunity policy in the military does not account for gays and lesbians as it does for people of color, for women, on the basis of gender, religious orientation, race, et cetera. And until there is some sort of non-discrimination clause in equal opportunity policy that protects gays and lesbians from further harassment - whether that's sexual harassment, homophobia, a hostile work environment - it is simply not safe to come out of the closet if you're in the military.

MARTIN: To be continued. Anuradha Bhagwati is the executive director of Service Women's Action Network. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Christian Berle is deputy executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, and he joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BERLE: Thank you for having me.

Ms. BHAGWATI: Thank you.

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