HLS Group Gives Advocacy Award to Military Gay Rights Lobby

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an organization seeking the repeal of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, was honored with the second annual Gay and Lesbian Legal Advocacy Leadership Award on Saturday.

Members of Lambda, a Harvard Law School gay rights student group, presented the award during a celebratory banquet capping off a weekend-long conference examining the military’s policy, which bans openly gay and bisexual individuals from serving in the military.

The event came three days after Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) reintroduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would lift the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy entirely.

C. Dixon Osburn, the co-founder and executive director of SLDN, accepted the award on the organization’s behalf, saying that lifting the military’s ban would mark a milestone in gay rights reminiscent of the civil rights struggle.

“The repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ will be a watershed event for gay citizens much like racial integration was for African Americans,” Osburn said during the banquet.

He also spoke of the ramifications that the 13-year-old policy has had for gay and bisexual individuals across the country.

“We cannot be honest, and we are invisible,” Osburn said. “If citizenship really means anything, it means we should have the opportunity to speak up openly and honestly.”

Osburn added that the policy reinforces the status imposed on gays by mainstream society and the government.

“When the military covers up the harassment we face, the government sends a message that we are second-class citizens and that we deserve to be treated that way,” he said.

In an interview before the banquet, Lambda Co-President Adam R. Sorkin said that his organization was impressed by SLDN’s continued efforts to lift the ban. When SLDN was created in 1993, its mission was to end harassment and discrimination against military personnel that were directly affected by “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Since the organization’s founding, it has provided free legal services to over 11,000 military service members and has obtained 36 changes to military policy and procedure.

“They’ve been doing so much,” Sorkin said. “They’ve been on the front lines in terms of legal challenges in court, in terms of counsel for service members.”

The event marked the second time Lambda has given its leadership award to a group battling the military’s prohibition on openly gay servicemembers. Last year, the group recognized Boston College Law School professor Kent Greenfield, the founder of a coalition of law schools that challenged the constitutionality of the Solomon Amendment. The law requires universities to grant the military access to their campuses in order to receive federal funds.

Lambda Co-President Brian A. Schroeder said his organization wanted to extend its scope past last year’s topic and discuss issues of national importance.

“It seemed like this was the perfect opportunity to move beyond the Solomon Amendment and to look at the core element of discrimination,” he said.

The conference also featured five panel discussions ranging on topics from “What Does Lawrence v. Texas Mean for the Future of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?’” to “Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Military.”

Law School Dean Elena Kagan and Smith Professor of Law Martha Minow were both moderators at the conference.

—Staff writer Kevin Zhou can be reached at kzhou@fas.harvard.edu.