Looking Back: The Anniversary of the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

A conversation with Aubrey Sarvis, one of the driving forces behind the repeal of the military policy.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Photograph courtesy of SLDN.

Around this time one year ago, Aubrey Sarvis was in the extreme nail-biting phase of his singular project: to get Congress and the White House to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. In his role as executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), Sarvis and his team were the front line of the campaign to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He’s in a much happier place these days, as tomorrow marks the anniversary of President Obama signing the repeal into law. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” officially ended in September.

“Implementation has been effective, without any major hiccups along the way,” Sarvis says. “This is based on reports from commanders and gay and lesbian service members serving all around the world, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Sarvis says there has been some “pushback from a few conservative members of the House,” but “these are not big bumps in the road.” We contacted the office of one of the active opponents of the law, Missouri Republican Todd Akin, and got this response: “Congressman Akin was against the repeal; beyond that, we really don’t have further comment.”

Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, echoes Sarvis. “The implementation of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ has gone very smoothly,” he says. “We routinely ask military leaders whether they are experiencing any problems with the repeal, and so far they have not identified any incidents related to the repeal. General Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, who was opposed to the repeal, said recently he was ‘very pleased with how it has gone.’ We will continue to keep our eye on the Department of Defense’s implementation of the repeal of this discriminatory policy.”

Sarvis is keeping his eye on the Department of Defense, too, and is looking ahead to what he considers to be significant future “challenges.” For example: SLDN seeks to win the same benefits for legally married gay and lesbian service members that are awarded to married straight service members. “They are not receiving the same medical benefits, housing, financial support, and family support programs,” he says. Key to winning this parity, he says, is doing away with the Defense of Marriage Act, which was written “when Congress did not envision that two people of the same gender would be spouses. DoMA needs to be repealed, and the definition of ‘spouse’ changed, to enable the Pentagon to actually provide these benefits.”

According to SLDN, more than 65,000 gay men and women serve in the United States military. Sarvis says that “nearly” 80 percent of Americans support gays in the military, and the opposition is “a hardcore minority on the right still fighting this old battle.”