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Lawmakers Eye ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Reversal

October 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on Washington this past weekend demanding an end to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Could a reversal be next? Kwame Holman reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the nation’s capital this weekend to demand that the president and Congress act to end discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: They came from all over the country to march Sunday from the White House to the Capitol Building, demanding change and renewed awareness of issues affecting the gay community.

MARCHERS: Yes, we can! Yes, we can!

KWAME HOLMAN: A main focus was on the man most here supported for president, Barack Obama. Many now complain he hasn’t delivered on promises made during the campaign.

GILBERT BAKER, marcher: No, he hasn’t, not yet. We will see what happens. That’s why we’re here. We have to put pressure on not just the president, but the Congress and even the court, in order for us to achieve equality.

JULIE MAROSKY THACKER, marcher: I am absolutely here to encourage President Obama to live up to his promises from the campaign for my family’s equality.

CHARLES SWAN, marcher: The same rights that any heterosexual person would have, we hope to have as well. We’re not allowed to marry. We can’t serve in the military openly.

KWAME HOLMAN: Many openly gay celebrities were also on hand.

CYNTHIA NIXON, actress: He says all the right things, but it’s time for him to really put his money where his mouth is.

KWAME HOLMAN: The night before, the president addressed the Human Rights Campaign, one of the country’s largest and most influential gay and lesbian organizations.

Mr. Obama renewed one of his central pledges to the gay and lesbian community, to repeal the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

Obama promises to end policy

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. We should be celebrating their willingness to show such courage and selflessness on behalf of their fellow citizens, especially when we're fighting two wars.

We cannot afford -- we cannot afford to cut from our ranks people with the critical skills we need to fight, any more than we can afford, for our military's integrity, to force those willing to do so into careers encumbered and compromised by having to live a lie.

So, I'm working with the Pentagon, its leadership, and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy. Legislation has been introduced in the House to make this happen. I will end Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That's my commitment to you.

KWAME HOLMAN: The crowd cheered, though the president gave no timeline for the policy change. That, plus a perceived slow pace of other action, has divided some in the gay community.

MAN: I do think that he needs to at least acknowledge that things are going slow where our agenda is concerned.

RYAN LEVY, gay rights supporter: This president is thoughtful. He is going to make sure the legislation is right. We're going to do it one time, and one time correctly.

KWAME HOLMAN: Last week, don't ask, don't tell again made headlines when a government study revealed women are far more likely to be discharged from the military under the policy than men. Key members of Congress remain split on when and how the president should push a policy change.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich., Armed Services Committee chairman: I think he will and he can. I think it has to be done in -- in the right way, which is to get a buy-in from the military, which I think is now possible.

Including the military

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: It's my belief that, if the policy, you don't have buy-in by the military, that's a disservice to the people in the military. They should be included in this. I am open-minded to what the military may suggest. But I can tell you, I'm not going to make policy based on a campaign rally.

KWAME HOLMAN: But many who marched on Sunday were optimistic about don't ask, don't tell and other issues. Fifty-seven percent of Americans now support some form of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, according to a Pew poll released Friday.

And, last Thursday, the House of Representatives amended hate crimes legislation to include violence against people due to sexual orientation, legislation President Obama promised to sign.

Countless activists and organizers never gave up. You held vigils, you spoke out, year after year, Congress after Congress. The House passed the bill again this week.

And I can announce that, after more than a decade, this bill is set to pass and I will sign it into law.

Together, we will have moved closer to that day when no one has to be afraid to be gay in America.

When no one has to fear walking down the street holding the hand of the person they love.

KWAME HOLMAN: The hate crimes bill could clear the Senate this week, before being sent to the White House for the president's signature.

GWEN IFILL: On our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org, you can find the results of the Pew poll Kwame mentioned on gay rights and same-sex marriage.