When it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, we know that powerful political families are divided, but those divisions generally never make jaws drop. Then again, I've never lobbied a lawmaker with his ex-wife before.
On Tuesday, May 11, I went to Capitol Hill with 400 veterans and civilian supporters to lobby for the repeal of the discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," discharge policy applied to the ban on gay and lesbian service members in the military. The repeal of the law has vast universal appeal among all groups polled including Republicans and even members of the "Tea Party."
And apparently Congressional spouses.
UPDATED: I have corrected some factual mistakes about dates and locations of Vertolli and Kirk's honorable service to the country. My deepest apologies for getting this wrong, and I hope the corrections set the record straight.
We've seen these differences on LGBT issues before. Elizabeth Edwards famously opposed John's stance against marriage equality in the 2008 primaries. Even more visible, Cindy McCain came out 100% pro-marriage equality and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal, while her once gay-friendly husband lagged far behind--sealing their differences with a now iconic shoot with the famous "NoH8" photo campaign. Bill Clinton has also now come out in favor of marriage equality while his wife, Hilary, has yet to backtrack on her 2008 "separate but equal" stance.
The doozy for me, however, came on Tuesday when I arrived at the office of the Representative who is very likely to step into the Senate seat that President Barack Obama held just two years ago.
Illinois Representative Mark Kirk--the Republican who is leading in the race to replace disgraced (but amazing LGBT-ally) Senator Roland Burris--is a recently divorced Naval Reservist--a Commander, USNR, who was commissioned in the 80s. Veterans issues are a priority for the representative who had very publicly battled persistent gay rumors within his own party in the primaries. Certainly Rep. Kirk can commiserate with the veterans whose jobs have been put on the line because of gossip. Kirk had--until recently--been one of the few Republicans considered LGBT allies on the Hill.
According to his ex-spouse, Kimberly Vertolli, Republican Mark Kirk caught the eye of LGBT leaders in 1999 when he ran for office for the first time with an Employment Non-Discrimination Act supportive stance.
Changing the mind of a loved one
Despite the dissolution of their marriage, Kirk's ex-wife Kimberly, is an ardent supporter of Kirk's Senate Candidacy, campaigning and fundraising for Kirk. She still refers to the legislative work of the Representative using "we" and "us." She knows all of his staff and seems very close. But on Tuesday, she did not show up in his office as a member of his entourage, but of ours. Kimberly Vertolli is a former Naval Officer herself (Annapolis 1995), met her husband in the Pentagon War Room in 1998, as the Pentagon prepared an aircraft-carrier based military strike on Baghdad. On Tuesday she was there to try to move her husband's staff to get on the same page on the immediate repeal of DADT, known as House Bill 1283: The Military Readiness Enhancement Act.
Kirk and Vertolli are still very close, and she described him as "my greatest mentor and dear friend." Even so, the Congressman was not there. DADT is a touchy subject for his staff, and he's likely not advised to sit in on potentially damning meetings on the subject until after the election.
In fact, at the same time we were sitting in Kirk's office discussing military readiness with Kirk's Legislative Correspondent, Randall Hirsch, video was being released from a Mark Kirk press conference the night before where the Congressman re-upped his support of discrimination in the military.
However, Kim talked very frankly about her ex-husband's time in the service and his exposure to other gay vets. Kim recalled serving with lesbians and gays in her time in the service and agreed that her ex-husband is likely aware he is serving with many honorable lesbians and gays in the military. "Kirk is one of only two Members of Congress who actively serve in the U.S. Military," she noted, "Mark takes his military service very seriously and he doesn't get paid for it--he does it because he loves our Navy, respects the men and women who wear the uniform, and he knows that it deepens his national security expertise."
Estimates show that more than 66,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual troops are currently serving the U.S. Kim went a step further to point out the hypocrisy of a government that allows gays and lesbians to take a bullet and die for their nation but won't let them "be who they are."
Kirk may be coy about the DADT issue, but his former wife is unabashedly blunt: "It's ironic--some Americans who volunteer to serve their country and put their lives at risk can also be humiliated and drummed out subjectively. That's not the way I want my government to treat the men and women volunteering to protect my security. Gay men and women have been serving honorably in our military since its inception. They served with me and they're serving with Mark. DADT gives homophobes a dangerous hunting license...to kill people who would take a bullet to protect you, me--all Americans."
"It's also an issue of integrity," she said as we spoke with Kirk's very sympathetic legislative correspondent, Randall Hirsch. Vertolli seemed confident, "DADT will be lifted. It's not an question of if, but when and how...Congress should repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell and put Americans national security interests above bigotry."
Kim is just one of the millions of Americans in favor of lifting this ban. In three recent polls (CNN, Quinnipiac, Gallup) 69% of Americans stated support for ending the ban.
Even recent Iraq/Afghanistan vets favor lifting the ban over keeping it 9:7, according to Vet Voice. Kim contacted friends in the Human Rights Campaign--who sponsored the lobby with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and Servicemembers United--through their store in Dupont Circle to seek a way to get involved.
HRC's lead lobbyist Andrea Levario escorted Kim to the Hill for the meeting with her husband's staff. Will she be able to move her ex-husband on the issue and convince him to come in as a cosponsor? Time will tell.
When reached by phone the next day, Kim expanded on her feelings for me, and emphasized she "vociferously" supports equality. "We want to have our best people serving in our military, regardless of their sexual orientation." She said. "It's counter-productive. We're spending valuable taxpayer money on recruiting and training quality people to protect us. We harm our national security and our budget by maintaining this discriminatory and wasteful policy. "Incidentally," she also noted, "I personally know a guy from the Naval Academy, who is straight, but used DADT as a pretext to avoid fulfilling his service commitment...it worked--he hit the private sector 3 or 4 years earlier than he would have been able to without DADT."
"Representative Kirk is waiting to see what conclusions the Pentagon Working Group's study of the repeal come to," his staffer relayed to us, as many staffers on the Hill Tuesday undoubtedly told the 400 Veterans worried about time running out.
Vertolli noted, "Mark prides himself in being thoughtful and independent...empirical data, testimony from military leaders, the best interests of his constituents, and the best interests of Americans will likely influence his position. It's a heady place to be--Mark is one of the few Members with national security expertise and military service--he enjoys a unique respect from both sides of the aisle. His Republican and Democratic Congressional colleagues rely on and are influenced by Mark's national security expertise."
Supporting equality is not only the right, but the only place to be
Is the representative in the right place on the repeal? Absolutely not. Until he's a cosponsor of the bill, he's dead wrong.
We don't have to wait until the Pentagon working group comes back with their results to repeal it. Time is running out, and every day we wait two service members are fired under the policy.
"The Military Readiness Enhancement Act Leaves 60-120 days before implementation, neither scenario would interfere with secretary Gates' study," says discharged veteran Marquell Smith, "Why wait?"
Marquell goes on, "Republicans can take advantage of not having to vote at all. Repeal would end the prohibition [on gays serving openly in the military], but it won't guide the implementation. Should they decide that they'll repeal the law, but the Department of Defense implements it. Secretary Gates implements. If the Pentagon comes back with some ridiculous suggestions Congress would have to go back and make further changes, but the Military Readiness Enhancement Act doesn't interfere with that now."
Marquell--one of the 1 million LGBT veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces--is eager for the Hill to work fast to quickly repeal this policy--which has cost the nation anywhere from a half-billion to $1.3 billion--so that no one else will have to experience what he went through.
The Pentagon working group will have their results in a matter of months. The group is not studying if there will be a repeal but how to repeal the ban. Their findings will guide the implementation after the Military Readiness Enhancement Act is passed, but will not be affected by its passage at all. Not only that, in order for the Pentagon's suggestions to be put into place, the Act must first be passed. Congress' work passing this bill now will allow the Defense Department to work more efficiently and effectively.
"Congress has never waited for the military work study to be completed to pass a law, as far as I know," said Lee Reinhart, another discharged veteran attending that meeting with Kirk.
"In fact, usually Congress mandates a change, and then the Pentagon studies how it will be implemented--not the other way around."
Reinhart brings up many of America's other allies, such as The United Kingdom and Israel did not wait for "studies" to integrate their military, "...it was done overnight."
Kim Vertolli also points to America's other allies' lifting of their gay bans when proclaiming her support. "Of all the NATO countries, the United States and Turkey are the only countries with such a ban," she said. "That's not the best company to keep."
In fact, for years Turkish gay men have known that they will not actually be barred from their conscription duties if they are openly gay, but will be given menial work and kept from the greater unit while they fulfill their year of service obligation. Leaving the United States as the sole nation continuing to add to their 13,500 discharges--including over 60 Arab linguists.
Lobbying a friend
Marquell Smith, Andrea Levario and Kimberly Vertolli went on to speak to Representative Judy Biggert, the moderate Republican serving the west-side Chicago suburbs of the 13th District. Vertolli called Biggert "an old friend" on the phone with me. Biggert, like Vertolli's ex-husband, Mark Kirk, seems to be having some difficulty coming out in favor of the law. That said, she indicated a possible softening on the issue, and the three felt there was a strong indication that when the vote comes down, we may be able to persuade her to support an end to discrimination.
"Biggert would vote the right way if it came down to it," Marquell Smith said, "She might cosponsor, but she has some issues with the bill. She is for repealing the ban. She doesn't want to be the only Republican [supporting equality]."
Andrea Levario, HRC's Senior Public Policy Advocate who said that Vertolli approached HRC about getting involved, said the meeting with Biggert was very successful. "She is supportive of our position on the legislation. In her heart she supports it. She's been co-sponsor of several key pieces of legislation for our community... [we are mostly interested in Biggert] being in the right place on a vote."
Levario goes on to encourage the work to continue and points out three key Senators that LGBT equality advocates must continue to put pressure on to to win. "I think Senators Bayh, Brown and Webb are three perfect targets." She encourages folks in Indiana, Massachusetts and Virginia to continue contacting Bayh, Brown and Webb daily and ask them to co-sponsor Senate Bill 3065--the Military Readiness Enhancement Act.
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) [(202) 224-5623]
Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) [(202) 224-4543]
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) [(202) 224-3954]
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) [(202) 224-6551]
Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) [(202) 224-4024]
Do your best to get your friends to join you in making the calls!
Not the end of the story
If he becomes a senator, Representative Kirk would be filling some very impressive shoes. Senator Burris' record on LGBT rights has become one of the most impressive in his short time in the Senate--taking up the causes of ENDA, DOMA repeal, and being very vocal about every other piece of the LGBT legislative slate. Even President Obama's record on human rights as a Senator is among the brightest. Big shoes to fill.
While Kirk's stubborn support of this discriminatory policy is discouraging, I hope that the optimism shown by those near him is a hint that he will move on the issues, and that he becomes a champion for LGBT rights in the House now, as well as in the Senate if Illinoisans send him there in November.
As a long-time supporter of an inclusive-ENDA, he certainly shows that potential, and when these bills come up, we're going to need him there with us on all of them. If he fails us, however, we must communicate our outrage strongly with our votes.