“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” & the Invisible Senator

The most under-recognized politician who helped lead to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” 10 years ago is Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka of Hawaii (1924–2018).

There are many champions of repeal that could be highlighted, like Pat Schroeder, Barbara Boxer, Ellen Tauscher, Steny Hoyer, Mark Dayton, and Jim Moran. And they will be. And there are several sour apples like Carl Levin, Lincoln Chaffee, and Joe Manchin. These will be elaborated upon as well. But this special 10th anniversary of the 2010 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” belongs to a leader on LGBTQ rights and the first Native Hawaiian in the U.S. Senate.

A veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers in World War II, Daniel Akaka was a high school teacher and principal. In 1990, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate and then won the seat, which he held until 2013. Just three years into his Senate tenure, Akaka advocated for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the military. On January 29, 1993 he said this:

“The current ban on gays in the military is based upon stereotypes and prejudice…. The present policy is discriminatory and advances no end but to deprive our country of talented and dedicated individuals.”

But Akaka went further. He added, “Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates the very constitutional and philosophical fabric of American respect for privacy and individual freedoms” (emphasis added).

To be clear. In 1993, 27 years ago, when talking about the political plutonium that was “don’t ask, don’t tell,” first-term Senator Akaka said the ban is prejudicial AND that sexual orientation is a constitutionally protected class.

In September of 1993, Akaka will be one of 33 Senators to vote in favor of LGBTQ service, through the Boxer amendment. In 1996, Akaka will follow up on this and be one of just 14 Senators to vote against the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA). In 2004, he’ll vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment. On December 18, 2010, Akaka will vote to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

In fact, no one in the history of the Congress cast more votes in favor of LGBTQ service in the military than Daniel Akaka. Again:

Senator Akaka was active behind the scenes. The first meeting I had with his office on “don’t ask, don’t tell” was on January 8, 2003, nearly 18 years ago. We discussed a fledgling campaign to overturn “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but our main agenda item was the murder of PFC Barry Winchell because he was perceived to be gay.

Winchell was beaten with a baseball bat by fellow soldiers while he slept at Fort Campbell Kentucky in 1999. By 2003, President Bush had nominated that base’s Commanding General for promotion.

Senator Akaka was furious. He sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and instructed his staff to do anything they could to help oppose the General’s nomination. The General was so toxic that Senator Susan Collins went on NBC Nightly News to push back against the nomination. And the Democratic National Committee weighed in, stating:

“Following the tragic death of Private First Class Barry Winchell, Major General Clark failed to take responsibility for the anti-gay atmosphere that was prevalent under his command at Fort Campbell.”

The murder of 22 year old PFC Barry Winchell in 1999 was the singular tipping point in the history of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The policy and law were broken under the weight of this anti-gay murder. Politically, it set into motion the nomination of MG Clark in 2002, which mobilized activists on the Hill, led to hiring the first full-time lobbyist (me) in 2002, and led to the introduction of legislation to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2005. This was the model language until changes in 2010, just before passage.

Senator Akaka was front and center for this tipping point. During a private executive session of the Armed Services Committee (where the nomination was considered) there was a dramatic moment where a motion to vote unanimously was proposed:

Senator Akaka objected.

Senator Akaka motioned for a roll call vote

The Chairman objected.

There was a motion for a voice vote.

Senator Akaka objected, but was overruled.

Then Senator Akaka put a statement in the Congressional Record and discussed the nomination process this way:

On October 23, 2003, the Senate Committee on Armed Services voted to favorably report General Clark's promotion for consideration by the Senate. The vote taken was a voice vote. I asked, however, that the record reflect that had there been a recorded vote, I would have voted to oppose this promotion.

So in this, the most consequential moment for the trajectory of “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, Senator Daniel Akaka (second only to Ted Kennedy) was a leader for LGBTQ troops.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” there will be much credit-claiming. And “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a big deal. There were many people and organizations that battled. But Daniel Akaka has been invisible as a leader for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” long enough.

Dr. Christopher L. Pepin-Neff worked on “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal professionally for 9 years, including four years as the first full-time lobbyist. He holds a PhD in public policy, a Masters in public policy, and a Bachelors in political science. He can be contacted at chris.pepin_neff@zohomail.com

Researcher on LGBTQ politics and emotions in public policy. Opinions are mine.