Patrick Murphy: A Force Behind DADT Repeal
By Neal Simpson
I met former Congressman Patrick Murphy on the campus of Stanford University in October when both of us were invited by the Stanford Law Veterans Organization to speak on a panel discussing the real impacts of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). I was nervous, having never spoken about my experiences as a gay Marine officer to a large group of people. This was compounded by the honor of speaking alongside the man who made my open service possible.
I was a bit of a wreck. Introductions and small talk were made, mineral water was dispensed, and Murphy and I began the typical military tail-sniffing exercise: “Where did you serve? Who did you serve with? When were you there? Oh, do you know so and so?” Surprising to both of us was a mutual friend who, like me, was a Marine who graduated from Texas A&M and whom Murphy served with while in Iraq.
My nervousness faded quickly, thanks to Murphy’s normalcy. He looks and acts like many former service members I know. He’s tall, fit, with excellent posture and a witty, somewhat-in-your-face sense of humor, all of which undoubtedly contributed to the Democrat’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006. He’s a guy’s guy, comfortable talking about football and beer and sharing candid stories of his time in the Army. His calm and disarmingly positive demeanor makes it hard not to instantly trust him. It’s immediately obvious why he succeeded in politics.
The panel discussion went well. Each of us presenters (including Zoe Dunning, the only openly gay Naval officer allowed to serve under DADT) had the opportunity to tell our story and answer questions from an audience of about 80 students. There were tender moments, funny stories and a general tone that exemplified exactly why the repeal of DADT was successful. American society has finally embraced openly gay military members; this discussion demonstrated that clearly. Following the panel, we congregated outside over a pony keg and told more stories with other veterans from the audience. The entire event lasted only a few hours, but everyone in attendance walked away with an appreciation for how smoothly the repeal had gone.
Equally obvious were the sacrifices that it took to get to that point, and I knew then that I needed a better understanding of just how hard it had been to finally get the law repealed. Murphy graciously accepted my invitation for an interview, and we spoke several times over the next few weeks, during which time he addressed the OutServe-SLDN audience at its conference in Orlando as well.
To a casual observer, the repeal of DADT seemed to go rather smoothly. President Barack Obama vowed during his campaign to end the policy, and nearly two years after his election he signed the new law. However, the fight over gays in the military is an old one, with DADT implemented under President Bill Clinton in 1993 as a compromise over his initial attempts to end the ban on LGBT service outright. To those who worked since that day to end this policy, the process was anything but smooth, and the end result nowhere near guaranteed. In the House of Representatives, in fact, several other legislators had tried on several occasions to get the policy repealed.
I asked Murphy why he succeeded where others hadn’t. I wanted to know how a straight, Irish-Catholic freshman congressman from a tough district in Pennsylvania was able to place the U.S. House of Representatives firmly on the right side of history’s ledger on such an important issue. His first answer was simple and humble: “You either believe in equality or you don’t. You’re either willing to fight for it or not.”
Not completely satisfied, I pressed: “How did Patrick Murphy become the LGBT military’s Lady Gaga?”
His tone changed and his response was quick: “I joined Congress to kick ass. I didn’t come for a pension. I didn’t come to Congress to f–k around.” Now we were getting somewhere.
From late 2009 when he assumed sponsorship of House Resolution 6520, the stand-alone bill that would eventually pass in March 2010, Murphy met with every single member of Congress, many of them several times. He became a distinctive face for the equality movement, and as an Army veteran, his advocacy was more memorable than that of his predecessors. He would sit with a fellow representative and pitch the bill, listen to their reasons for not pledging full-throated support, and take notes. Many congressmen feared that the polarizing nature of the issue would cause problems in their districts. They took advantage of the Pentagon’s decision to launch a study to determine the effects of repeal on the military. They would tell Murphy to come see them after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that the time was right for repeal, never imagining that might actually happen.
When that happened, Murphy, notes in hand, returned to those members and countered each of their previous reservations with the results of the study and the newly stated positions of Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen. Many members found it difficult to argue with a combat veteran and fellow congressman when he looked them in the eye and unraveled their reasons for refusing to pledge support. Member by member, caucus by caucus and vote by painstaking vote, Murphy and his team clawed their way toward victory, encouraged by changing public opinion and the public support of high ranking military and civilian officials.
Murphy will be the first to tell you that the successful repeal of DADT was certainly not a one-person victory. In fact, he was the third representative to take on the issue directly. Rep Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) introduced the first bill to repeal in 2005. Unfortunately, the political climate in the legislature and the general attitude of the country was not yet ready to see the law overturned. In 2009, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) took the reins from Meehan and reintroduced the bill. When she decided to take a position with the State Department that year, she tapped Murphy as her successor in the fight to repeal DADT. Murphy attributes much of his ability to sway votes in Congress to Meehan and Tauscher’s hard work, as well as the diligent research and advocacy of organizations dedicated to LGBT equality, both within the military and beyond. Asked about some of these unsung heroes who helped him make repeal a reality, he spoke glowingly about the hard work of Emily Sussman, the former political director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, and Allison Herwitt, the legislative director of Human Rights Campaign.
“I spoke with Emily every single day for over a year during this fight,” he said. “She, Aubrey Sarvis (former executive director of SLDN) and Allison Herwitt are just the best, and this absolutely wouldn’t have happened without their hard work. This was a long battle. For 16 years we didn’t even have a hearing on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Their efforts allowed us to go on the offense and challenge those who weren’t supportive of true equality for our military—for the first time. That’s huge.”
Murphy also received support from Tobias Wolff, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and longtime advocate for repeal. Most memorable for Murphy was Professor Wolff’s assistance helping him prepare to cross-examine Elaine Donnelly, founder of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, when she appeared before the House Armed Services Committee in strong opposition to repeal. Murphy earned some well-deserved popularity when video of that hearing and his refusal to let Donnelly off the hook went viral on the social media site YouTube.
The successful repeal of DADT also required support in the Senate. That meant Murphy needed strong allies in the other chamber. When asked to name his counterparts in the Senate who were critical to the success of repeal, he did not hesitate. “Carl Levin, Joe Lieberman and Kirsten Gillibrand. Those three were hands down the most powerful advocates in the other chamber, helping to pave the way for marriage equality in many states and giving the president the courage to stand out against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and come out in support of marriage equality. This was the tipping point in the fight for equality.” It seems obvious now that no conversation about DADT repeal is complete without including the discussion of marriage equality and DOMA.
In taking on the repeal of DADT, Murphy knew, as did most when observing his tenacious drive for success, that he was unlikely to be re-elected, regardless of whether or not the bill passed. When asked if he believed it was the reason for his loss in the next election, he said it didn’t matter.
“So I lost re-election. Who cares? For too long, everyone looked at Washington and said ‘They’re in it for themselves—they’re in it to get re-elected.’ I went to Washington to change the country for the better. It may sound hokey, but I love this country and I was willing to do what was right, especially for something so incredibly important as equality—true equality for all.”
I wanted to know if he honestly believed that another Patrick Murphy existed, someone willing to throw the Hail Mary pass for the repeal of DOMA. I honestly wasn’t expecting a name, just the assurance that there was someone.
“I’m a big fan of Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York.” Murphy said. He described Senator Gillibrand as having “the kind of profile and guts to stand up as a young mother and senator and say ‘I’m willing to do what is right when it comes to equality. I want my friends in the LGBT community to have the same 1,800 rights that my husband and I share.’”
Murphy and Senator Gillibrand came to Congress together as freshmen, and they came with a similar mentality of making a difference. “She didn’t come to stay 40 years and get a pension,” he said.
Since moving to the Senate, Senator Gillibrand has demonstrated her unwavering support for LGBT rights. She has co-sponsored four bills relating to LGBT issues, ranging from the repeal of DADT to domestic partner benefits for federal employees. She’s a strong supporter of hate crimes legislation, and she has refined her original position on gay marriage solely as a state issue.
In a press release following the Supreme Court’s decision to hear two cases regarding marriage equality this year, she stated, “It is well past time for the federal government to recognize the marriages of all loving and committed couples and finally put the discriminatory DOMA policy into the dustbin of history.” Clearly, Senator Gillibrand is well positioned to be the Patrick Murphy of DOMA repeal.
Though LGBT rights have been trumpeted by Democrats for years, the issues surrounding equality are becoming more palatable for politicians on both sides of the aisle. Evidence of this can be clearly seen in some bi-partisan support for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would have successfully repealed DOMA, had the bill not died with the 112th Congress. On Sept. 21, 2011, the day after President Obama signed the repeal of DADT, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida became the first Republican to co-sign the Respect for Marriage Act, introduced in the House by New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler. A long-time supporter of LGBT rights, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s bold move of support illustrates just how far we have come as a nation of tolerance in the last two decades. With the new Congress in place, the bill must be reintroduced.
The successful repeal of DADT is a brilliant example of how future progress should be pursued in the fight for equality. Though slow moving, it was the deliberate nature of the fight that ensured the issue never fell apart under pressure. Despite a national climate that was not yet ready for a military without sexual orientation blinders, advocates quietly and fiercely collected facts and worked to educate the naysayers. The support and dedication of activists and organizations dedicated to freedom and equality was essential in arming the politicians with the facts needed, in some cases gathering them directly when the Defense Department was unable to do so on its own. The lawmakers involved, including Murphy, patiently gathered support for the root of the issue—it wasn’t about military readiness or unfair treatment or defense spending. It was about standing up for what is right, even when it was unpopular.
As for Murphy’s political future, it’s unclear what role he will continue to play, though it is certain he will remain influential. Currently practicing law at Fox Rothschild in Philadelphia, he is an avid and highly sought-after guest speaker on a range of issues, including LGBT rights, and continues to write and advocate from the private sector. His leadership and allegiance to the country and the LGBT community remains strong.
And though he’s out of office, he’s certainly not out of touch. During our telephone interview, he put me on hold for 18 minutes to take a call from the White House. Getting back to me, he wouldn’t reveal the details of the call, but he assured me it was “a very positive conversation.” Clearly, this isn’t the last we’ve heard from Patrick Murphy.