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A Front Row Seat to History: Tobias Barrington Wolff on the Repeal of DADT

December 23, 2010
President Barack Obama embraces Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff after the signing of the bill repealing the
Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff listens as President Barack Obama speaks before signing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 during a ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington, DC. December 22, 2010. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

On December 22, 2010 Tobias Barrington Wolff, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, attended by special invitation the White House signing ceremony marking the repeal of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) policy, enacted in 1993. The policy prohibited lesbian, gay and bisexual U.S. service members from speaking honestly about their identities or having any kind of private romantic relationships — twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, whether on duty or off duty.

Wolff has written and researched widely on the topic and from 2007 to 2008 served as an advisor to Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He spoke with Penn Law's office of communications about the repeal of DADT and future legal and policy implications.

Penn Law School (PLS): Please tell us about your scholarship and policy involvement with DADT.

Tobias Barrington Wolff (TBW): My involvement with the policy goes back about 14 years. My scholarly work has focused mostly on an examination of the policy's First Amendment and free speech implications. In fact, I wrote my first law review article on the policy, as a third-year law student, and published it after I graduated. The DADT policy represented a singular kind of speech regulation in American legal history. It was the most direct form of regulation of identity speech that we've ever seen. And it's the only instance of which I'm aware in American law where the government passed a regulation that restricted the behavior of a group of people and then prohibited them from even identifying themselves as the individuals who were being regulated.

It represented a singular affront, both to the individual rights of U.S. service members in their dignity and their ability to express themselves, and to the democratic values that demand that the relevant voices in an important public debate be heard. And of course, throughout the entire life of DADT the one voice that we couldn't hear from was the gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members who were living under the policy every day – because identifying themselves and participating in that debate would have required them to end their careers and be discharged from the military.

PLS: What course of events led you to be at the White House signing ceremony with President Obama, and what were your thoughts when the President signed the repeal?

TBW: I became involved with the Obama campaign in June 2007 when they asked me to serve as the chair of their advisory committee on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) policy issues. I served as an advisor for a year and-a-half. I did a lot of speaking engagements and frequently dealt with the press on those issues for the campaign, in addition to my assistance with policy work. After the president took office, obviously I knew a lot of people in his administration and the relationship continued. I've been advising the White House periodically on related issues.

President Obama has been working on repeal of DADT since he first took office. In the more focused process that played out over the last year, I've attempted to offer my input and guidance to the administration as they navigated the very difficult political landscape – getting the support they would need in Congress, and getting the buy-in they saw as necessary from the Pentagon and the senior military leadership in order to get this done. It took such extraordinary skill – in leadership, governance, and statesmanship – on the part of the president and his administration. I've been doing this work for 14 years and I can tell you that even a couple of years ago advocates for the policy's repeal weren't sure that it was politically possible to get this done.

When they scheduled the signing ceremony they invited me to attend, and I wound up sitting in the center of the front row. I literally had a front row seat to history. It was overwhelming.

PLS: What are the implications of repeal? Where do we go from here?

TBW: The statute just signed into law requires that the president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that repeal of DADT can be implemented successfully and that the preparations, regulations, and so forth that are necessary can be put in place. The president has made it clear that he expects that certification process to be done carefully, but swiftly. There has been reporting since the signing ceremony that he has spoken with each of the service chiefs and they believe they will be able to complete their preparations with dispatch.

It's going to be a matter of months for certification, and if the experience of other militaries around the world is any indication – there are about 25 nations around the world who have gotten rid of their anti-gay policies and integrated gays and lesbians, and they have done it easily and without substantial problems – then the certification process will not take very long and it will be a smooth transition.

The repeal of DADT is important in and of itself, but it's also an opportunity to change the nature of the conversation about LGBT people around the country. Military service has always been taken as one of the markers of first-class citizenship. Before now, there has always been an impediment to arguing for other forms of equal treatment for LGBT Americans when this one very visible and important marker of citizenship was being denied to them by federal statute. Now that it is being taken off the books, I think that a lot of other conversations about equal treatment under law will change for the better.