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MEO Access Is Essential

by

Danny Ingram
President, American
Veterans For Equal Rights

The Department of Defense will not be making gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members a "protected class", and this means that open service members will have little protection against harassment and discrimination.  To be blunt, the war is not over, and we must take action now if Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is to be anything more than lip service to LGBT Americans.

The Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) program was established as the primary means by which service members belonging to a "protected class" can receive help to redress complaints of harassment and discrimination.  According to the Air Force Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) Program website, "The MEO program seeks to eliminate unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment against military members, family members, and retirees based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion".  If a member of the military who belongs to one of these classes believes that they have attempted to resolve an issue of harassment or discrimination through the chain of command and have received no assistance, they can use the MEO program to get help.  If LGB service members are not added to the list of protected classes, they will not have this ability.  If their commander is unwilling to help, or is the source of the harassment, the only recourse open to LGB service members will be to seek help from the Inspector General, which is a very difficult step, and the very reason that the MEO program was established. 

The Department of Defense has decided to use training and leadership as its primary means of implementing the repeal of DADT.  The DOD claims that the professionalism and respect that commanders will instill into their troops will effectively deal with the problem of bias.  It can be argued that training and leadership could also deal with issues of discrimination faced by service members of a different race, color, sex, national origin, or religion. But this is not the case.  If race, color, sex, national origin, and religion are viewed as so problematic that a special process must be established in order to protect these "classes", why should sexual orientation, which has been the subject of institutionalized, systematic discrimination by the US military since the birth of the nation, be any less of a challenge?

Making "sexual orientation" a protected class in an official non-discrimination statement is the only way of establishing real protection for LGB service members.  Critics claim that this protection was "bartered away" in order to secure votes for the Repeal bill.  Others claim that such a non-discrimination statement would make the military's refusal to grant equal benefits (including partner benefits) to LGB service members not only more obvious but more problematic.  In its research into the possibility of lifting the DADT ban, the Pentagon Working Group noted that many members of the military had strong negative feelings towards "special rights" in general, and were therefore opposed to making LGB personnel a protected class.  Service members were opposed to the idea of the military having to meet "quotas" of LGB service members.  It should be noted, however, that while the DOD may have recruiting and promotion goals for some classes such as race and gender, they certainly have no such priorities for religion, national origin, or color, which are also protected classes.

As the president of a Veterans Service Organization, AVER, I am deeply concerned by the implications of this decision by the DOD on the rights of LGB veterans.  In my meeting with the Repeal Implementation Team at the Pentagon last month, I was told specifically that the VA "would be following the DOD's lead" on this issue.  In other words, the VA's Office of Minority Affairs will not be taking any action to establish protections to ensure that LGB veterans do not experience harassment or discrimination when it comes to receiving their benefits.  The VA currently administers a large number of programs for protected classes such as the Center for Minority Veterans, to insure that minorities do not experience discrimination. 

The United States Coast Guard has decided to take a different route from the other 4 military services.  The Coast Guard, which is not a division of the DOD, but a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, immediately established "sexual orientation" as a protect class.  This move is in keeping with DHS's own policies.  The Coast Guard's class list now includes "race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, marital status, parental status, political affiliation, engagement in any protected activity, or any other basis protected by law".  Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp made the following clear and unequivocal statement of his position and that of the United States Coast Guard:  "As members of the Armed Forces, we have sworn to uphold and defend the constitution of this great nation, and we will do so smartly and professionally.  As I stated in my congressional testimony, repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is in keeping with our core values".  In his State of the Coast Guard speech given on February 11, 2011, Admiral Papp further stated “The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will also require YOUR leadership – And I’m counting on YOU to exercise it. It’s every Coast Guardsman’s job to make the workplace one of respect. YOU must value YOUR shipmates, no matter what their background.”  It sounds like Admiral Papp really gets it. 

Since US Coast Guard veterans have the same access to the VA as veterans of the other services, one has to wonder why the VA can't "follow the lead" of the USCG instead of the DOD?  Does the Coast Guard not face the same issues as the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force?  Why has the Coast Guard been able to implement this change and the other services not? 

President Obama needs to complete the mission.  As Commander-In-Chief, the President needs to issue an executive order to include "sexual orientation" in the DOD's list of protected classes.  If the Coast Guard can do it, there is no reason the other service branches can't do the same.  No one stepped in to tell the USCG they could not include "sexual orientation" in their non-discrimination statement.  The rest of the services need to do the same.  Otherwise protection for LGB service members will be a dangerous mirage.  The repeal of DADT will be an empty victory. 

I know that no member of AVER was naive enough to believe that repeal of DADT would be the end of our efforts to bring equality and justice for LGB service members, not to mention the rights of transgender Americans to serve in the armed forces.  Our mission continues, and your support is still vital.  Just when you thought it was safe to turn off the fax machine...

Details to come. 

  2011 Gay Military Signal