20 December 2010

The Highs, the Lows: DADT and Dream Act Meet Opposite Fates in Senate

After 17 years, 13,500 dismissed service members and enough debate to have launched a thousand ships, the US Congress finally did what's right: on Saturday, December 18th, the US Senate repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the military's ban on openly serving gay and lesbian soldiers. This repeal is a tremendous win not just for gay and lesbian service members, or for women and people of color (who, we now know, were disproportionately impacted by the discriminatory policy); it is also a remarkable win for our nation as a whole, as it moves us ever closer to becoming a truly inclusive democracy --one where who we are puts no limits on what we can be, and what we can do.

Of course, this great moment for our nation wasn't anywhere near certain: as late as last week, when the bill was killed as part of a larger Pentagon policy package, it looked likely that DADT would remain a troubling piece of military law for at least the next few years. But then Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the repeal as a stand-alone measure -- clearing the way for a vote that ended up proving that on some days, on some issues, some whiff of bi-partisanship still lives in Washington.

The final vote was 65 -31 in favor of repeal, with eight Republican senators crossing the aisle to join Democrats in ending sanctioned discrimination in our armed forces. It will take at least 60 days for the military to implement a plan to dissolve the policy, and questions, of course, remain about how well the military will end up handling the process and addressing issues of harassment that are bound to erupt. But whatever happens from here, it is worth pausing to celebrate the fact that the United States has finally taken a definitive, positive stance on the worth of gay and lesbian citizens to this nation, and its military. As Senator Ron Wyden (D - Oregon) stated in the opening moments of debate, “I don’t care who you love. If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are.”

That's exactly right. The military still has any number of egregious issues to address -- from its treatment of women soldiers in general, to the startling high incidence of sexual trauma service members experience (issues which Ms. Foundation grantee SWAN is working to combat). But at least telling the truth about who you are is no longer cause for dismissal. That, to our minds, is something well worth celebrating.


Of course, Congress rarely gives you a reason to celebrate without also giving you cause to tear out your hair -- and this weekend was no exception. On their way to enacting the long-awaited repeal of DADT, the Senate failed to pass the Dream Act, falling just five, heartbreaking votes shy of the 60 needed to make way for this important piece of legislation.

The Dream Act would have provided a critical path to citizenship for those brought to this country as undocumented minors: through education and/or military service, young immigrants would have been given the opportunity to become legal citizens, and to build a better future in the only country many of them have ever known. The now dead bill would have had a particular impact on women -- who, as Ms. Foundation grantee NLIRH points out, are the backbone of their communities. As women now make up more than half of all immigrants, tend to be the primary breadwinners in families, and are usually the ones who initiate the citizenship process, the defeat of this bill leaves thousands of women and their families quite literally shut out of the American dream.

We can't say enough how deeply disappointed we are that no bi-partisan effort similar to what we saw on DADT was forthcoming on the Dream Act (especially since the act could have reduced the federal deficit by an estimated $1.4 billion over 10 years, and fiscal austerity tends to be a top talking point for Conservative leaders). Either way, depriving young women and men of the opportunity to make the most of their lives in this country seems to us about as un-American as you can get. We can only hope that the incoming Congress will somehow have the good sense to revisit the topic in short order, and get on the right side of history on this front, as they finally did with DADT.

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