Human Rights

Washington Insider to Lead Charge Against Military's Gay Ban

Despite popular support for lifting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," it may take a Washington insider to get the job done.
Imagine flying on Bell Atlantic's private jet in 1997 as the telecom giant's chief congressional lobbyist. You're the sole traveling companion of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Raymond Smith.

With your incredible access, you casually mention that you assume Smith knows you're gay and you'd very much appreciate it if he'd testify before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in favor of banning anti-gay job discrimination.

Smith does testify, saying savvy corporations support such workplace protections because "no company can afford to waste the talents and contributions of valuable employees as we compete in a global marketplace." Treating gay workers fairly "is good business and ... good citizenship," he adds.

If you're Aubrey Sarvis, it doesn't take imagination to envision that scenario: He starred in it.

Sarvis enjoys amazing access, thanks to four decades in the corridors of power -- as chief counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, at Bell Atlantic-turned Verizon and as the head of his own lobbying firm. He's proven he's willing to pull strings to help those of us who're gay.

Now Sarvis has been recruited to lead the charge for ending anti-gay employment discrimination by one of the nation's largest employers, the U.S. military.

"The new president will be our first window," says Sarvis, 63, the new executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, formed in 1993 to provide legal help to gay soldiers entangled in the abusive tentacles of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (

Sarvis has set his sights on getting Congress and the next president to repeal Don't Ask: "I will be concerned if in 2012 we aren't there."

Over the years, SLDN's groundbreaking reports have educated the nation about the damage Don't Ask does to patriotic young gay Americans and to national security: Polls now show most Americans agree that gays should be allowed to serve openly.

Yet repeal will be no easy trick: That anti-gay policy is a federal law. Sarvis' challenge is to persuade Congress -- largely filled with successful, older, white guys like himself -- to get rid of it.

To do that, Sarvis needs to build a critical mass of support in the largely conservative, older and male veterans community.

And the presidential election could replace one stumbling block with another, since the Republican contenders support Don't Ask and are competing to replace George W. Bush as the deliveryman for social conservatives.

All the Democratic contenders pledge to lift the ban. If the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, wins, she'll not only have to deal with the war in Iraq and show that a woman can be a strong commander in chief, but also avoid a run-in with the Pentagon, which, as Bush might put it, gave the last Clinton who tried to make it gay-friendly a "thumping."

So, clearing the hurdles standing in the way of repeal is doable, though difficult. SLDN made a smart tactical move in picking a seasoned Washington insider who enlisted at 17 in the Army and served for three years, much of it in Korea.

Public opinion hasn't yet gotten the ban lifted. But connections forged over decades at Washington cocktail parties and on private flights may be just what it takes to get the job done.
Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.
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