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Kirstin Gillibrand
US Senator, New York

Speaks on Repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell

by Denny Meyer

On August 5th, 2009, Gay Military Signal spoke with New York's Senator Kirstin Gillibrand about her recent success in arranging the first Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) since 1993, to take place this coming Fall.  Senator Gillibrand was appointed by New York Governor David Paterson to replace Hilary Clinton when she became Secretary of State.

Gay Military Signal: Senator, congratulations on being the senator from New York, who is championing progress on the DADT issue.

 What inspired you to take up the issue of DADT in the senate and work toward the senate holding its first hearing on the issue since the early 1990s?

Senator Kirstin Gillibrand: I have been working on issues of concern to service members and veterans over the last few years because I was a member of the House Armed Services Committee.  And I've spent a lot of time speaking with service members and veterans.  I recently had a meeting with Lt. Choi.  And the meeting we had was very inspiring to me because he described how military policy is that you are told never to lie.  But, in fact, he is asked to lie every day about who he is.  I thought that was particularly compelling and really put an emphasis on how distorted this policy truly is; and how destructive it is.  And, so, I told him I would do everything I could to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell.  And I started looking into how I could make that happen.

I had a bill already that I was co-sponsoring with a congressman on the House side, Congressman Murphy.  I started to talk with the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, about what it would take to change this policy.  I started to look for the votes that would pass it; you need sixty votes; and I started talking with my colleagues and working with the advocacy groups that we thought would be supportive of the repeal.  My bill was specifically to do a moratorium, because Senator Kennedy had the repeal bill that he wanted to introduce.  So, I decided that in the absence of a full repeal, we could at least offer a request to have a moratorium for eighteen months, while the president and the military decided what to do about the policy.  During that eighteen months, no one could be dismissed.  So, we started counting votes and we did not get sixty.

We decided with the advocacy groups that it was better not to offer that and fail on the vote.  (We decided) instead to ask the chairman (of the Armed Services Committee), Senator Levin, for a hearing.  And the Chairman was very supportive.  He said that he thought a hearing would be timely.  And he thought that in light of the president's views, a hearing was appropriate.  And this will be the first Senate hearing on the topic since 1993.  I believe it's a major step toward repeal.

GMS: Would you describe any of your discussions or interaction with Senator Kennedy and his staff on this issue? 

KG: We worked with his office.  I haven't talked with the Senator directly about it, but we talked with staff a lot.

GMS: Would you describe any of those discussions?

KG: They are very supportive.  The Senator (Kennedy) wants to introduce that at the appropriate time.  And when he introduces it, I will be an original co-sponsor.

What was the deciding factor or issue that ultimately resulted in the agreement to hold a hearing?

KG:  I think that the chairman was very interested in the fact that I was going to introduce the amendment and I was trying to earn the 60 votes that were necessary.  And I think he believed that this hearing was timely as this is a policy that does need revision.  You'd have to ask him about any details beyond that.

GMS: It is understood that, although you are not on the Senate Armed Services Committee, you served on the House Armed Services Committee.  We would like your views on DADT, based upon your experience in the U.S. House of Representatives:

Senator Gillibrand with JCS Chair Admiral Mullen
In the 'about' section of your website, you state:
"Honoring veterans in her district in upstate New York and across the country has been a hallmark of Senator Gillibrand’s time in Congress. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, she authored legislation to help veterans receive the benefits they earned and fought for the greatest investment in veteran’s benefits since World War II. From her post on the committee, Gillibrand was also a leading sponsor of legislation to strengthen our nation’s security and emergency preparedness."

Would you agree that the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (the current House bill that would repeal DADT) would strengthen our nation's security by enabling all Americans to choose to volunteer to serve in pride regardless of their sexual orientation?

KG:  Absolutely; I think its a great bill and I hope we can pass it.

GMS:  It is understood that there had been some misunderstanding and even mischaracterization regarding your support of the repeal of DADT while in the House of Representatives.  HRC, in fact, clarified that you have and do support DADT repeal as well as other gay rights issues.  Would you comment on why you were not a co-sponsor of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act while a U.S. Representative?

KG: No, I never co-sponsored it.  I should have co-sponsored it; it was just not a bill that was moving at the time.  It was not a bill that was at the forefront of my veterans' advisory board agenda.

  The issue that was most timely, when I was in the House, was the issue of the backlog of paperwork that so many veterans were experiencing.  They were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and they could not get access to specialists or treatment for high levels of post traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries; and (they had) no ability to see therapists or specialists.  So, the urgency that came up on my veterans' advisory board was a focus on "how do we streamline the VA and how do we make the VA more responsive the needs of the veterans."

I wrote two bills; one that was implemented, to make sure that DOD wrote a manual for veterans every year that outlines every benefit that they are eligible for.  That came to my attention when I met vets at  Wounded Warriors events in my district in the Catskill Mountains (NY).  They said, "Kirstin, we just had a law firm do this pro bono, but we should have this (information provided) every year.  I spoke to the law firm; they spent two million dollars of pro bono services to get this manual done.  So, my bill would have the military do that.  Actually, the military (then) went ahead and did it; so the bill did not ultimately get voted on because they already implemented what we wanted them to do.

Second, I wrote a bill called Pro Vets which was to make the VA more proactive as opposed to reactive.  Because, what is happening is that right now veterans have to apply to find out which benefits they are eligible for.  I want the VA to notify veterans proactively, what benefits they're eligible for.  I want them to be able to transfer medical records directly from DOD to the VA in a streamlined way so that they can avoid that adversarial process that happens now of a veteran having to prove what his level of injury is, after he is off active duty, when he becomes a veteran.  So I'm now working on that bill on the Senate side.

Regarding the question; I've always supported the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell; the lack of co-sponsorship was not an indication of my lack of support.  There are a lot of bills that I would vote for that I just didn't get around to co-sponsoring.   In fact if you look at my voting record, I have a 100 percent pro gay rights voting record on all issues.

GMS:  I very much appreciate all of that.

In you position on the Foreign Relations Committee, have you reviewed any reports regarding the experience of our allied nations where open service of homosexuals has been permitted since the early 1990s, particularly in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Israel?

KG:  No, but I've read about it.  I haven't gotten to see any reports, but I've read about the successes they've had.  And some of the evidence that I hope we develop in this hearing is (of) the grave loss we've suffered because of this policy.  We've lost over 13,000 service members who have been discharged because of their sexual orientation since 1993.  And the Government Accountability Office has said that the cost was almost 200 million dollars, because of this policy for both the recruiting costs and the training of replacements for those that have been discharged.  And Third, we've lost some of our most important experts, some of the most mission critical men and women that have been dismissed.  Of the 13,000 they estimate that about 800 mission critical people, including a lot of our foreign language speakers -nearly ten percent of our Arabic and Farsi speakers have been dismissed; which is a very high number when we're trying to fight terrorism.

GMS: In referring to our Gay Military Signal on-line "Don't Ask Don't Tell fact sheet" at
http://www.gaymilitarysignal.com/DADTfacts.html , which includes the loss of those who simply do not reenlist due to the policy, would you comment on that and related issues?

KG: That is another level of loss.  I think that the policy is hostile to the military; I think it is destructive; and I think it undermines our strength.

GMS: Thank you.  What would you like to add in closing?

KG:  I think the tide is changing.  There is a change afoot and it is something that is going to be very transformational.  Its happening across the board, putting gay rights at the forefront of the civil rights debate; because this is an issue of civil rights and equal justice and basic fairness.  I'm very optimistic that we will make progress and that many of my colleagues will be in a position where they can support  a repeal.

  2009 Gay Military Signal