Silence kills

Maine’s senators don’t know about Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell  
By TONY GIAMPETRUZZI  |  May 25, 2006

The effort to overturn the Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell policy governing gays serving in the military needs more than just the support of the 120 members of the House of Representatives who have signed on to the bill to replace it with a non-discrimination law. While Maine representatives Tom Allen and Mike Michaud, both Democrats, are on board, the bill’s opponents are focusing their energies on getting moderate senators, like Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, on board, despite signs from their camps suggesting either malaise or ignorance on the issue.

Allen was among the first to sign on, telling the Phoenix he believes DADT is both “blatantly discriminatory”and “undermines our military readiness.” Michaud echoes Allen, saying “anyone who wants to serve this country should be able to serve”and what DADT boils down to is “just a waste of money.”

But with efforts shifting to the upper house of Congress, this month Collins, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, participated in a teleconference with Maine activists — the result was a decided mixed bag.

Steven Scharf, a member of Maine’s Log Cabin Republicans (a group of gay Republicans), says the meeting with Collins and anecdotal conversations with Snowe yielded surprising, if not troubling responses: he says neither knew of a problem with DADT, both saying staff members haven’t imparted constituent concern on the issue.

“After introducing ourselves [to Collins] and talking about some issues, we said we wanted her to be the lead Republican sponsor in the Senate, and that perked her up. She was really taken aback, asking ‘haven’t you found anyone else?’ We said, ‘No, that’s why we’re asking you,’” says Scharf of the meeting with Collins earlier this month.

“She countered by saying that she didn’t see any groundswell for changing the law, but that she will look into the issue and see what the groundswell might be” said Scharf adding that, although hope is not lost, some involved in the conference felt it might be wise to begin to look for other possible lead sponsors.

Scharf got a similar response from a personal meeting he recently had with Snowe. Again, the senator imparted that she didn’t realize that anyone was displeased with the law.

Despite a number of requests, Collins’s office failed to comment on the meeting. Snowe's office didn't return repeated calls seeking comment.

Still, Dixon Osburn, the executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a watchdog agency assisting those affected by the law, is optimistic. “I think the citizens of Maine have a huge role to play here in educating their senators that they need to end discrimination, that discrimination hurts, it hurts our ability to defend ourselves. They need to ask their senators to get on board,” he says. “We certainly have every hope that both Snowe and Collins will eventually come on board ... when that moment will be is anyone’s guess right now.”

Signing up
What they seem to be missing is a two-fold problem: DADT hurts gay servicemembers (and those who would sign up if not for the law) as well as the military itself.

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Related: Ducking the question, What Collins won't tell, 10 years later, we told you so, More more >
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Shrouded bliss
Those pushing for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell chose New England as their proving ground because it’s arguably the most liberal region of the nation. Yes, we have centrist Republican leaders, every single state has vast protections for gays and lesbians (Connecticut and Vermont will let same-sex couples register into a civil union), and, in Massachusetts gays can tie the knot.

But, if either member of the betrothed is serving in the military, they might want to think twice before making such a public record of their union: while Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut have laws against bias on the job, they most certainly do not apply to the US military or the National Guard. And that bumps right up against DADT.

“I don’t think we can give any individual a hard and fast rule when it comes to grounds for discharge. I think the best we can do is tell people there are lots of things to consider — finances, partner’s finances, long-term financial planning, kids,” says Gary Buseck, an attorney at Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders adding that, although there are other trips and traps (usually for non-citizens, those wishing to adopt) for people who wish to marry in Massachusetts, the military question is a big one.

“There are a lot of things you can do that don’t require ‘telling.’ But, each individual needs to make a series of choices: how long they have been in the military, is it your career, do you depend on the pension. Maybe you decide as much as you’d like to get married, you put it off because you don’t want to risk that pension.”

Not quite fair, now, is it?

Dixon Osburn doesn’t think so, and the growing number of states that allow for such unions is yet another reason for the urgency of a DADT repeal.

“When you have a public record that indicates your relationship, that could cause a problem. You [also] can’t get spousal benefits, which is one of the reasons why we want to get married [in the first place]. It is tricky and we do have an increasing number of cases that come to us with people who want to get married and want to know what the consequences are,” says Osburn, of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “Some of these couples have children and they want to figure out how their children can get proper health care ... they all involve risk ... it’s really a matter of what sort of risks they want to take.”

For most, though, it’s the pension, stupid — and those in the know would often suggest to just not pop the question.

“Anybody who does anything that leads to a public record risks being discharged. The question is whether the military would actually get a copy of that information,” says Osburn. “With the public record there, there is certainly a strong risk that the military could obtain that information.”
_TG

 

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