The Law School celebrated the repeal of the military’s policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) with a panel discussion and reception in Greenberg Lounge on October 10. While Congress voted to repeal DADT in December of last year, the policy formally ended only last month. “I believe progress of this magnitude should be publicly affirmed,” Dean Richard Revesz said in a memo to the Law School community announcing plans for the DADT discussion. Recounting the school’s long involvement with the issue, Revesz said, “I am proud that in 1978, NYU Law became the first law school to deny its career services to employers that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation” – a move followed by many other law schools and top law firms.

Kenji Yoshino, Irene Dorzback, Joshua Rosenkranz, Sylvia Law, and Margaret SatterthwaiteKenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law, served as moderator of the discussion, and panelists included Brenda S. “Sue” Fulton, co-founder of Knights Out, an organization of LGBT West Point graduates and allies; Jonathan Lee, special assistant to the Secretary of Defense; Joshua Rosenkranz, partner and head of the Supreme Court and appellate litigation practice at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe; and Emily Sussman, government affairs co-director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “We’ve assembled today to celebrate the fact that DADT has been formally repealed,” Yoshino said, but “we also note in a clear-eyed way that obstacles still remain to full equality.”

Before the discussion began, Yoshino asked for a moment of silence for Derrick Bell, a renowned civil rights scholar and activist, and full-time visiting professor at NYU Law since 1990, who died on October 5, and Paula Ettelbrick, an influential LGBT rights expert and adjunct professor at the Law School, who died on Oct 7. “Both were extraordinary scholars and leaders in civil rights,“ Yoshino said. “We cannot let this occasion pass without acknowledging how much work they did so that our culture could evolve to the point we mark today.”

Yoshino asked the panelists to walk through the history of the military’s policy toward gays, and in particular of the battle against DADT. Rosenkranz, who was also the founding president and CEO of the Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, noted that NYU Law “in a very real way was ground zero for a particular front of this war against don’t ask, don’t tell” – the challenge to the Solomon Amendment, which denied federal funding to universities if they failed to provide equal access for military recruiters. NYU Law was among the first of 26 law schools that signed up seeking to overturn the Solomon Amendment in court. While that effort, spearheaded by Rosenkranz, ultimately failed, Yoshino said it was part of the “multidimensional advocacy” – acting in all three branches of government simultaneously – that ultimately led to the repeal of DADT. “If you want social change, if you want to answer the question of how does change happen, it happens by leaning on many of these levers at once,” Yoshino said. Fulton agreed, likening the strategy to the “combined arms” approach used in the military. “The success of this was because we had organizations at every place on the continuum.” Rosenkranz and Yoshino cited several members of the NYU Law community who were key supporters of the battle against DADT: Assistant Dean for Career Services Irene Dorzback; Assistant Dean for Public Service Deb Ellis ’82; Elizabeth Kay Dollard Professor of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry Sylvia Law '68; Dean Revesz; and Associate Professor of Clinical Law Margaret Satterthwaite '99.

In closing, Yoshino said:

“If you were sitting here even ten years ago, certainly 20 years ago, it would have been unimaginable that the gay rights movement would have come as far and as fast to where it is today. We’re on the cusp of actually getting positive rights, not just to serve our country, but also to marry, and so this is another step along the road to full equality. One of the things that I constantly have to remind myself and my students is, don’t sort of psyche yourself out. You know, the best way you can prevent a utopia from actually arriving is to keep yourself from imagining it, so I think that an aggressive act of imagination is really important.”

Posted October 17, 2011

Watch the full video of the event (1 h 6 min):