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With the historic repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law, Sen. Joe Lieberman says the next step for gay rights is to ensure that same-sex partners of federal employees receive the same benefits as heterosexual spouses.
Both the "don't ask, don't tell" law in the military and the federal government's rules on benefits for same-sex couples have discouraged talented people from joining, Lieberman said Monday.
The Senate voted 65 to 31 on Saturday to repeal the policy barring homosexuals from serving openly in the military. President Barack Obama has said he would sign the bill.
More than 14,000 people have been discharged from the United States military under the law, including a cadet from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Bronwen Tomb, a gay woman who left the school in 2006 after another cadet turned her in, said Monday that she always thought the law would change but she did not have high hopes for this session of Congress.
"It seemed like the opposition had a good chance of continuing to stall it until the Congress changed, then keeping it on a back burner for the next two years," she said. "But I'm glad that didn't happen."
Lieberman, D-Conn., championed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" to allow openly gay individuals to serve in the armed forces because he felt Americans who want to serve have the right to do so.
Lieberman does not currently plan on trying to change the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. But he did introduce a bill last year, which is still on the Senate calendar, to equalize benefits such as retirement, disability and federal health insurance for federal employees' domestic partners.
"The private sector and big companies are way ahead of the federal government," Lieberman said. "We are trying to attract the best people to serve in federal government and one of the ways to do that is by offering benefits to their family members."
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he is also in favor of the change, but he noted that Republicans will take control of the House when a new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 5.
"We've got a new cast of characters," Courtney said Monday, adding that repealing "don't ask, don't tell" now is both the right thing and the smart thing to do because the courts would have acted if Congress did not.
President Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen will notify Congress when the military is ready, with policies and regulations in place, for the repeal. Then another 60 days must pass before the repeal is officially enacted.
The current law and policies remain in effect in the meantime, Gates said in a statement. Enacted under President Bill Clinton in 1993, the law prevents the military from asking service members about their sexual orientation. But if military authorities find out that a service member is gay, he or she can be discharged.
"We've taken the position that this is not a good and not a fair policy, and we want them to work out the best way to implement it," Lieberman said. "I don't think they'll take too much time because they have been working on it. It will be a matter of months, certainly not years."
The change in the law means that service members will not have to disclose their sexual orientation, or "tell," but Lieberman said it is possible they could be asked.
"They could be asked, I guess, in conversation and now they are free to answer or not," he said. "And if they say yes, the good news is that they don't get kicked out of the military just for being honest."
Tomb, now 27, is studying journalism at Columbia University. She wants to see where that path takes her, but she said it is nice to know that the Coast Guard could still be an option. No one has been told to leave the academy for violating "don't ask, don't tell" since Tomb.
"I feel like I moved on," she said. "I loved the Coast Guard, it was great and I would've stuck with it. Now that I'm doing other things I don't really expect to go back, but you never know."
Tomb was more excited for those who will join the Coast Guard in the future without any fear of retribution for being open about their sexual orientation.
"They can just have a normal career from the get-go. It's going to be so much better for them," she said. "I know people talk about harassment and backlash and all of these things, but I really believe that even in the fairly near future, the repeal will make the work atmosphere better."
The Pentagon's recent survey of service members found that 70 percent expected the impact of repeal on their units would be positive, mixed or of no consequence. Lieberman said he was confident the military will make the change work.
"What matters to a soldier, particularly in combat, is not the race or gender or religion or sexual orientation of the other soldiers," Lieberman said. "What matters is how they fight and will they protect his back."