A Modest Step, Some Sharp Complaints

Obama's State of the Union promised open gay military service this year, but his support for ROTC and lack of support for other LGBT initiatives draws criticism

In 2010, President Barack Obama took the opportunity to use the State of the Union to declare that he would ”work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”

Biden and Obama
Biden and Obama
(Photo by Ward Morrison)

A year later, poised to looking out over a very different chamber — more than 70 additional Republicans are in Congress now than then — Obama’s promise to the LGBT community was far more modest, though significant.

”Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love,” Obama said.

The line was preceded by an acknowledgment of the diversity of the nation’s servicemembers.

”Our troops come from every corner of this country — they are black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American,” Obama said. ”They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay.”

Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese celebrated the news while calling for more action from the president.

”Very soon, what will matter in the U.S. military is how you do your job, not your sexual orientation,” he said in a statement. ”Last year the President committed to working with Congress to repeal the ban on open service by gay, lesbian and bisexual people and tonight’s announcement is welcome news for all Americans ready to close the book on discrimination in the ranks.”

Alex Nicholson, the executive director of Servicvemembers United, told Metro Weekly, ”The President’s comments in the State of the Union about gay troops for a second year in a row are a welcomed and much appreciated acknowledgement of our shared service and sacrifice.”

The news that Obama intends to have open gay service in 2011 puts one notable specific in the timeline for implementation of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act that previously had an unclear ending — although other administration officials previously had said that the required certification timing would be ”months.”

Under the act, which was signed into law by Obama on Dec. 22, 2010, repeal will not happen until the president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify to Congress that the changes needed to implement repeal are ”consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.” After the certification, another 60 days – for congressional review – need to pass before the repeal will take effect.

Despite the news on open military service, Solmonese said that more remained to be done on other LGBT issues.

”The issue most prevalent in tonight’s speech was jobs and with discrimination in the military soon behind us, there remain a number of pressing issues for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community when it comes to economic security,” he said in the statement. ”The President and Congress can do much more to ensure the economic empowerment of LGBT people including ending the unfair taxation of partner health benefits, prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and ensuring that all married couples have access to the same federal benefits and protections for their families.”

Get Equal director Robin McGehee pointed to the face of the congressional intern whose bravery at the Tucson, Arizona, shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and poised presence since has been praised since the shooting that left six dead.

”Sadly, while national hero Daniel Hernandez sat with the First Lady to witness this historic speech, he did not have the luxury of sitting there as an equal – for that, our elected officials should be ashamed,” she said in a statement. ”It is time for the President to put the power of the White House behind the passage of legislation that would give the right of full federal equality to LGBT Americans.”

Obama also addressed a related issue raised at the confirmation hearing of his second Supreme Court nominee, now-Justice Elena Kagan.

Obama said – in the wake of DADT repeal – that he ”call[s] on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.”

Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told Metro Weekly tonight, ”We have to respectfully disagree with the president.

”They still discriminate. They don’t let trans people serve. They call us ‘mentally unfit’ to serve,” Keisling said. ”It’s archaic, it’s discriminatory and it’s dumb.”

Explaining the situation, Keisling said, ”Prior to the congressional action almost two months ago, gay servicepeople and trans servicepeople had different issues. Gay people couldn’t serve because of legislative action. Trans people couldn’t serve because of administration action.”

With the passage of the DADT Repeal Act, however, the means to end both discriminatory policies falls to the administration.

”Now’s the time to fix that,” Keisling said.

She said that NCTE ”ask[s] colleges and universities not to allow recruiters and ROTC on campus while the military continues to discriminate.”

Asked whether other organizations that had been focused on securing DADT repeal supported open trans service, Keisling only would say, ”We’ve had some initial meetings.”

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