Ending 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' will be a teachable moment for black America

OPINION - The public face of the dismissed gay soldier is often white and male, but they're statistically more likely to be a black lesbian or black gay man...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

If you were watching President Obama’s first State of the Union Address on Wednesday night — and who wasn’t — one of the signature moments was when the president mentioned civil rights and the nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens. “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.”

The president was referring to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the almost 20-year-old policy that prevents gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces. As Obama made his appeal to repeal the law, television cameras panned across the floor of the House and you could see most of the Democrats giving a huge standing ovation, and even some Republicans applauding. Noticeably sitting stone-faced: Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen and the rest of American military’s high command.

Writing at the Huffington Post, black gay Iraq War veteran Rob Smith found the scene “incredulous”. “Seeing their faces made my angry,” he writes. “It made me angry that no matter what I say or do, my service and that of many more like me is continually ignored.”

While there’s some dispute on the role of the Joint Chiefs at the speech, they were later seen enthusiastically clapping during Obama’s tough talk on Iran. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the military is current discharging two soldiers per day under DADT. More than 13,000 members of the military have been fired since the law was adopted and more than “644 people have been discharged under the law since Mr. Obama took office,” the New York Times notes in a January 28 editorial calling for its repeal. The law has cost the US up to $1.3 billion. Additionally, the public face of the dismissed gay soldier is often white and male, but they’re statistically more likely to be a black lesbian or black gay man.

Census data shows black women with same-sex partners serve in the military at 11 times the rate of women overall. The Pentagon reports black women are discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at three times the rate that they serve. Black lesbians in the military are often mothers, so a discharge means unemployment, loss of health care benefits for children. This is a real threat to the black family.

Black gay men aren’t far behind in terms of discrimination. Platoon leaders such as Lt. Anthony Woods, a black gay Harvard and West Point grad, have been discharged once their sexuality is discovered. Woods led a 64-soldier combat unit in Iraq and earned a Bronze Star. Woods ran for Congress last year. He didn’t win, but appeared on national television and inspired countless young black gay men who rarely see themselves on such a platform.

Polls have shown up to 80 percent of the American public (including the majority of Republicans) wants to end the ban on gays in the military. Most of the Congressional Black Caucus is also behind repealing DADT. Florida’s Alcee Hastings has taken a prominent role pushing for its repeal and has butted heads with the Oval Office. Other veteran black members such as the fearless Rep. Barbara Lee of California and Detroit’s Rep. John Conyers are also demanding the White House take some action.

In the 36 hours since the president’s address, a number of new “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” narratives have emerged. White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett says the process will start “right away.” Hearings have been scheduled for Tuesday. Cable news, talk radio and the not-very-black-friendly conservative evangelicals may try to pit “blacks” against “gays”. They always do this. Thankfully, our president and many of our smart, black leadership in Washington do not believe this and are showing the black community that we’re all stakeholders. As the president says, “It’s the right thing to do.”