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Witness immunity sought for Gay service members
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Witness immunity sought for Gay service members

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

U.S. Representative Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), introduced a bill December 2 that would grant Gay service members who reveal their sexual orientations during congressional testimony immunity from forced discharges as lawmakers prepare to consider repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), the ban on Gays serving openly in the U.S. military.

Hastings said the bill is needed to ensure that Congress has reliable and relevant witnesses at its disposal if the House holds hearings next year on the DADT policy. In addition, the bill would also protect from retaliatory actions against any member of the military who testifies for or against lifting the 16-year ban.

"How can there be anything more important than a Gay member of the service having the right to testify before the Armed Services Committee of the Congress that he is under the aegis of?" Hastings said. "But if they come and testify, that testimony could be used against them under DADT. In my judgment, it's a question of fairness."

Hastings has secured 27 Democratic co-sponsors for his "Honest and Open Testimony Act."

Hearings on DADT that were promised by the end of this year have been postponed and are now expected in early 2010. The new bill would apply to those, as well as any other hearings on the topic in the House of Senate. The protections are seen as a "carve-out" because it would carve out, and drop, a section of DADT for the purpose of giving Congress access to full information.

While some scholars praised the new initiative as an effort to ensure that Congress bases its decision-making on the best possible data, the measure has also met surprising opposition from leading Gay veterans groups and other Democrats who have been at the forefront of the movement to repeal the flawed policy.

This legislation is good in theory, says Alexander Nichols, executive director of Servicemembers United, an advocacy group for Gay Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. But on a practical level, he thinks the legislation would not protect Gay service members who out themselves to Congress from becoming outcasts within their units.

He thinks it is better for Gay veterans to share their experiences than to put active duty service members at risk.

"This proposal is, of course, well-intentioned and the idea behind it is certainly noble, but I believe it is naïve in its conceit and doesn't reflect a thoughtfulness on what this would mean for Gay and Lesbian service members," said Nichols.

Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a think tank devoted to Gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that if the bill passes, it would be the first dent in DADT since the policy was adopted in 1993. "I don't think there is any downside," he said, "Politically, it is a very poignant thing to put a Gay person on the stand because that is shining a spotlight on the lie that structures the whole policy. The move, in and of itself, before they even say anything, is powerful ammunition."

"When the House and Senate evaluate the effectiveness of DADT next year, they will need to hear from those most affected by the law," said Dr. Nathaniel Frank, a senior research fellow at the Palm Center and author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America.

Frank says that if current troops are not allowed to testify honestly, the quality of deliberations will suffer.

"You can't expect a legitimate and informed debate over repeal if you keep Gay troops in the closet," he said. "Thousands of Gays are already open to their peers, but testifying publicly without protection would jeopardize their careers."

Since DADT took effect, nearly 13,000 troops have been discharged because it became known they were Gay. President Obama said he favors lifting the ban, but says the job is better left up to Congress, not the White House.

U.S. Representative Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress, has been spearheading a DADT repeal bill toward hearings in the House, but has yet to sign onto Hastings' measure.

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