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Witeck: Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Changes Everything in Corporate America

Bob Witeck |Co-founder and CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications
Tuesday, 8 Feb 2011 | 3:31 PM ET

Just before Christmas, President Obama signed repeal of the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policythat forced gay men and lesbians in America’s military to hide their sexual orientation or face discharge.

Street crowd
AP
Street crowd

Changing times and laws now bring more Americans closer to achieving their full rights and duties as citizens.

Once repeal takes effect, and American forces adapt to a more welcoming military culture, what will it mean for everyone else?

What trends will it shape in the U.S. economy, the jobs market and workforce?

Here are six ways:

Saving Tax Dollars, Preserving Military Assets

For starters, repeal immediately saves hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars while preserving critical military roles as troops fight overseas. The Government Accountability Office recently reported that over a six-year period (2004-2009), 3,664 service members were separated under DOD’s “homosexual conduct policy” – including four out of ten who held military critical occupations. This cost Americans $193 million to “separate and replace” these uniformed men and women.

Opening Jobs for Gay Youths

For young men and women without family resources, loans or scholarships, a college education is often out of reach. That’s why many families today consider military service their best, post-high school chance for their kids’ advancement. With military service options, young gay men and women now face the same choices others do to serve confidently, to acquire specialized training and to develop job-readiness for post-service careers. With America’s economy still fragile along with job scarcity, this means more lifelines to more families and their gay sons and daughters to try to be, as the Army famously promised, “all they can be.”

Career Advancement

Consider any corporate boardroom, executive mansion or legislature. Guess how many individuals arriving there, served in military uniform earlier in life. Serving in uniform is no prerequisite to top positions in business, politics, or any other arena. Yet, experience tells us that selfless, meritorious service is frequently a rewarding path to career recognition and the unmistakable mark for future entrepreneurs, business executives and corporate board seats.

In generations past, gay men and lesbians have earned top ranks within the military’s official closet, yet anecdote tells us that this was possible only by denying their true identity to everyone (and often themselves.) Some officer candidates also knowingly sidestepped senior ranks and appointments that could put their lifelong careers at risk. That stressful balancing act of “hiding in plain sight” can now be banished, and allow us to witness more well-qualified gay Americans achieve distinction at Annapolis and West Point, in more command positions, and in post-military careers.

Removing Bias on Military Bases, Others Follow

Corporate America has pushed to challenge biases and misconceptions about their own lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees. Last year, the Human Rights Campaign reported that 90% of the Fortune 500, for example, ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

With repeal, more than 2 million Americans serving actively or in reserves now will become part of the largest workforce in the world that is free from discrimination on sexual orientation. Now, quickly consider every defense contractor, vendor and supplier with deep, profitable relationships with the Pentagon. With new hiring and retention policies, these private employers depend on recruiting these experienced professionals. They cannot lag far behind in tapping the best and the brightest veterans including openly gay men and women.

Ironically, these ripples will be felt more deeply in my state of Virginia, which is the home of more active duty military personnel than any other state, with the Pentagon, as well as bases in Arlington, Blackstone, Dahlgren, Fort Belvoir, Fort A.P. Hill, Hampton Roads, Petersburg and Quantico. While thousands of uniformed Virginians, by law, will now be free of job discrimination based on sexual orientation, they will work side by side with other civilians and state employees who ironically enjoy no such state law protections. This chasm between workforces, side by side yet unequal, will be felt more keenly each year until the need for a U.S. employment nondiscrimination statute becomes clear.

Relationship Recognition and Family Benefits

One vital trait of our armed forces is our tradition of honoring military families. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the blanket ban on gay service that preceded it, we not only demanded gay men and women remain closeted, but also the partners, spouses and families they left behind. That secretiveness comes at a high price, emotionally and financially, since same-sex partners and dependents do not yet have equal access to the privileges, benefits or support given to other military spouses and dependents.

Americans recognize sexual orientation has nothing to do with one’s ability to defend and protect our nation, and also that the families of LGBT people matter deeply. In 2009, Gallup found that 2/3rds of Americans agreed that employees with same-sex partners should be treated equally with health insurance and other job-related benefits. With time, this will include gay and lesbian service members and their families too.

Recognition of LGBT Families is Permanent Trend in Our Economy

Across America, the rising tides towards same-sex partner recognition continue. With many more gay men, bisexuals and lesbians now eligible to serve openly, their familial relationships will be spotlighted – and likely to become one of the most visible, powerful arguments for marriage equality which is now legal in five states and Washington, D.C. With civil unions and partnerships too, almost half of all Americans live in jurisdictions where same-sex relationships are legally recognized.

With repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, thousands more same-sex couples will visibly transform the American economy, workforce and society in ways that we are only beginning to appreciate.

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Bob Witeck is co-founder and CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications (www.witeckcombs.com), as well as author of “Business Inside Out: Capturing Millions of Brand Loyal Gay Consumers” (Kaplan, 2006).

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