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Just 18 months after taking the helm, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) executive director Aubrey Sarvis finds his organization at the most promising crossroads in its 15-year history. A new president supports repealing the ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers, and a newly strengthened Democratic majority in Congress may offer the path to do so.
Not that Sarvis, 62, is counting chickens just yet. There is, after all, the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff to consider and work with. But it’s undeniable that the opportunity is theirs — it’s a matter of seizing it.
Part of that effort will come during SLDN’s annual Lobby Day on Friday, March 13, this year featuring a rally on the west lawn of the Capitol. And the night after will bring the organization’s annual National Dinner, featuring such guests as Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Rep. Eric J.J. Massa (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
Fifteen years have passed since ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legally barred gays and lesbians from serving openly and honestly, and while Sarvis obviously believes change won’t come easy, he definitely believes the change will come.
METRO WEEKLY: Given the change in the political climate right now, how are you feeling just in terms of SLDN’s political position going into the dinner this year?
AUBREY SARVIS: I think that we are entering 2009 from a position of strength internally and externally. We have a strong staff. We are ready for the new administration, an administration that supports repeal of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The discussion with the Obama administration is about when and how, not about if. I’m confident the president is going to be good on his commitment to not only get rid of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” but also to lead in helping us do so. But it’s our job as SLDN, along with our supporters, to help the president and to help the Congress in repealing this statute.
MW: I’ve seen some quotes from a number of different people and politicians on the topic of when to move forward with repeal. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is one of the most recent to talk about the need to possibly wait.
SARVIS: I’ve got to stop you right there. I don’t think that Sen. Levin said that. He didn’t say ”wait.” What Sen. Levin has said — he usually begins the interviews with, one, he voted against ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” 15 years ago; two, he supports repeal of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” today, and then he goes into three, the question is how and when do you do it in light of everything else that is on his plate, i.e., as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and on the plate of the president of the United States. So I think that Sen. Levin was talking about how this fits into everything else on the landscape and the agenda of the President and of the Committee. I understand that, I get it. So I think what he is saying is, ”Where is the opening and where is the opportunity?”
MW: The gay community and SLDN have done a lot of work since the early ’90s when ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was first implemented. We have a Democratic Congress, we’ve gone through hearings again. There has been the huge increase in public support for letting gays and lesbians serve in the military and serve openly — from a political perspective, 75 percent public support for overturning the ban, that’s more than most people get elected with.
SARVIS: It’s extraordinary.
MW: When people in the community hear politicians and pundits warning about Obama making the same mistakes that Clinton made, or that we have to talk to the military — there’s a feeling that if we’ve done all this work and we’ve done the education, why do we need to go back to the military again, or why do we need to have more hearings? What is it that they’re wanting to find out?
SARVIS: Just for the factual record, there’s only been one hearing on ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” since 1993 and that was last July in the Senate Armed Forces Committee. That was the first hearing in the Congress since the law was passed and that was last July.
I totally agree to your other point that it sounds like some folks up on the Hill are sort of couching things and saying there are other things on the plate, and I understand that. I doubt if there is anyone who is more impatient with getting on with this than SLDN. This is what we do, this is why we’ve been here for the last 15 years: to get rid of the statute and to provide free quality legal services [to servicemembers] as long as the damned statute is in place. So that’s what we do every day, so we’re very impatient about it.
But the second part of your question, why is the military so important? Why do we have to ask them what they think? Because historically, Congress gives a great deal of weight to recommendations from the Defense Department. So if in these early weeks and months of the Obama administration, the White House is reaching out to the Pentagon and trying to bring them aboard early in the process, I think that’s very important. I think that’s time well spent. If we can get a favorable recommendation from [Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that will go a long way in helping us build a majority in the House and Senate to get this done.
The third part of your question implies, well, we have Democratic majorities now in the House and the Senate and we have a Democrat in the White House, why in the hell can’t we get it done? There’s an assumption in there that because we have a Democratic majority in the House or the Senate that all the Democrats will vote with us for repeal. That’s not necessarily true and that’s why we have tried to couch this as a bipartisan effort. This is an effort to win passage that’s going to require Republicans and Democrats.
MW: There’s been some Republican support for this, though.
SARVIS: Not as much as we’d like, frankly, but there has been.
MW: Do you think that the attitudes of the military leadership is an actual hurdle or is that a place where you think we’ve seen movement the same as the move in broader public opinion?
SARVIS: In 1993 less than half of the American public supported gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. It’s now between 75 and 80 percent — most Americans by a wide margin support open service. By and large, we think that that is true in the military as well. Keep in mind that most of the people in the military are relatively young and also keep in mind the military likes to keep saying, and I think it’s true, that the men and women in uniform by and large reflect the American public. That’s where they come from. Everyone who is wearing a uniform today was a civilian. They’re not coming from Mars, they’re coming from the general population.
MW: What are you hearing from gay and lesbian servicemembers now? Are they optimistic or are they cautious?
SARVIS: I think they’re very hopeful. They’re looking to the president, they’re looking to the Congress and to SLDN and other LGBT organizations to make this a reality. I’d say our servicemembers are hopeful, they’re optimistic, but they’re also cautious. They know that their military careers are still at risk as long as ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is still a federal statute. So most of them are pretty savvy. I don’t think that they’re going to step out until they see the Congress and the president act. And they should not. Because it is a federal law and they cannot afford to come out and put their military careers at risk until we get rid of this law.
MW: Is there a strategy for what SLDN plans to do now that DADT repeal is on the table?
SARVIS: We’re working on two fronts: [for the] stand-alone bill to repeal the statue [the Military Readiness Enhancement Act], introduced by Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.). We’ll work that bill and try to grow the number of co-sponsors. And on the other front, we’re working with the administration to encourage them to reach out early to the leadership over at the Pentagon and the secretary of the Joint Chiefs and have an alignment among the team — i.e., the White House, the chief and the secretary — on repealing ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and hopefully getting a favorable legislative recommendation up to the Hill this spring during the DOD budget hearings.
Every year, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees do the budget for the Defense Department and this year, probably in late April or early May, and I expect ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to come up during the defense-budget authorization process. That’s where we’re going to find out if the Pentagon and the defense secretary are on the same page as the president on repeal of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” So it’s an opportunity for the Obama administration to show their solidarity and it’s also a risk. The risk is that if they don’t have their ducks lined up, the opposition might end up defining the issue. That’s what happened 15 years ago. The blow-up was in the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and guess what vehicle it was? It was a Defense Department authorization hearing. The question is whether the administration is going to be ready and are they going to be aligned? So in the spring it’s an opportunity for them to demonstrate that the new White House team is together.
MW: There was a lot of criticism when the president’s press secretary first said that, yes, we’re going to ask for repeal of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” There was kind of an uproar about whether Obama was going to make ”the Clinton mistake.” A lot of people felt that there was a little bit of a back-off from the issue after that. What would you say to people who are feeling that this is an issue that’s about to get pushed to the back burner?
SARVIS: I would say the president has been in office 36 days. I think it’s premature to reach the conclusion that the president or the White House is in any way backing off from his commitment.
I think people are too afraid of the ghost of Clinton. Obama has already taken a different approach to this issue. Read Obama’s statements last year: He was very respectful of the military, he reached out to the Pentagon. He was clear about wanting to do this, and he was equally clear as ”I want to do it with you.” He continues to have a very respectful dialogue with the Pentagon on this issue and that just wasn’t the case with President Clinton. He did not reach out until he realized that he was in trouble. Because he had not prepared, he had not planned, because there was too much rushing, the opposition framed the issue and at the end of the day they prevailed. And that’s what we’ve been living with for the last 15 years.
MW: What about Congress, though? The last time this blew up it really was a congressional thing more than a White House thing, however the White House dealt with it at the time.
SARVIS: They weren’t ready, they weren’t prepared. My message to the White House now is, ”Look, in the spring they’re going to be Defense Department authorization hearings. The subject is going to come up. You need to be doing your homework now and you need to be framing the issue now, because our opponents will seize the opportunity if they see it in the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.”
Again, this is an administration that’s been in office five weeks and the first three weeks were concerned with getting the stimulus package through. I didn’t expect this to be the issue that would be consuming the White House the first 30 days and I still don’t. I haven’t even been pushing them to do something in the first 100 days! It’s important to do it right and smart this time.
MW: How long do you think would be too long?
SARVIS: I think it has to be done in this Congress and I think it can be done in this session. There are two sessions in the Congress, and 2009 is doable. Certainly it needs to get done before the end of 2010 but it’s doable this year. And again, it’s a trap to think that Obama or the White House gets to determine when and how it comes up. That’s where some in the media make the mistake — the legislative calendar is the legislative calendar, and the White House doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring it. You don’t get to decide necessarily when the issue comes up.
MW: Do you think that 2010 will be doable, or do midterm elections end up taking it off the table for that session?
SARVIS: I don’t think so. I think that the issue is going to get framed in this year and it doesn’t get any easier for the administration or any of us to put it off. So I think that the opportunity is here in 2009 and we want to work with the White House and with Congress in seizing it.
MW: Tell me about SLDN’s rally on March 13.
SARVIS: We do a Lobby Day, which we’ve done for a number of years, where people come in and go see their congressmen or the staffers and lobby to get co-sponsors or commitments from people to vote for the bill. So we’ll be doing that in the morning, and at noon we’ll have a rally on the west lawn of the Capitol. The purpose of that is to rally the base and energize our supporters. It should be an energizing experience.
MW: Do you think that the gay community as a whole is paying close attention or are people kind of thinking, ”We’ve elected Obama, we’re good now”?
SARVIS: I think the community as a whole is not as engaged to the extent I think we need to be to help the president and to help the Congress. It’s not enough to get a friendly president on our issues and a friendly Congress. That’s part of the job. The second part of the job is staying engaged and helping the White House and helping the Hill get rid of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The key is to stay engaged and to keep pushing. At the end of the day, we’ve been working for this opportunity for over 15 years. It’s here upon us now and we want to seize it and we will with a new White House and a new Congress.