For we are not a nation that says, 'don't ask, don’t tell.' We are a nation that says, "Out of many, we are one." -- President Barack Obama.
On September 20, 2011, the federal law and U.S. military policy known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was officially repealed. No longer must gay and lesbian military professionals be forced to lie about a fundamental aspect of their humanity to serve the country they love. Consistent with the ideals of America’s founding, these patriotic Americans who wish only to serve their country can now do so without fear of rejection and retribution stemming from an unfair and immoral law.
I do not know personally what it means to be gay any more than I know what it means to be black or female. But I do know that, as human beings with sexual needs and preferences, all of us, gay or straight, are what we are; our sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. It just is. I did not choose to be straight any more than I chose not to be gay. Sometime around the age of twelve I woke up and discovered that girls were not so bad after all, that they looked better and smelled better and that I was increasingly motivated by mysterious forces to want to be in their company. Talk to anyone who is gay and you will discover that things were not much different for them, except they were not permitted to openly discuss their feelings for fear of being bullied, ridiculed, or worse.
The discovery that one is gay in America often is accompanied by great internal struggle and resistance. According to a 2009 study by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, adolescents rejected by their families for being gay are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. As writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh has noted, "The most exhausting thing in life is being insincere." Sexual identity is not a lifestyle preference, but a biologically driven fact of life, a concept so fundamental to the issue of gay rights that I continue to be confounded by the silliness of the opposition. And yet, walk into a conference of the Southern Baptist Convention in which war, poverty, guns, and equal rights for gays are on the agenda, and guess which one they are most passionately against.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the armed forces, thus ending what until then had been a disgraceful contradiction of American ideals. Although Truman was not an enlightened man by today’s standards on matters of race, he nevertheless believed that any man who risked his life fighting for America’s freedoms was entitled to the dignity and respect afforded all soldiers; that men willing to die defending the Constitution were entitled to the same protections guaranteed by that Constitution. Sixty-three years later, it is difficult to imagine that we ever felt differently. Today, many of our most decorated soldiers and some of our finest officers and generals are African Americans. With the formal repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we can begin finally to apply the same principles of justice and equality to the many dedicated and committed gays and lesbians serving our country.
According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, since 1993, when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell became federal law (a political compromise agreed to after President Clinton was lambasted for attempting to do what is now the law of the land), more than 14,500 military personnel have been discharged simply because they are gay. The United States has refused to allow thousands of highly qualified men and women to serve, not because they did anything wrong, not because they were disloyal, insubordinate, or incompetent – indeed, most served with great distinction – but simply because it was discovered that God had created them in a manner deemed unworthy of military service. That they were attracted to, or in committed relationships with, a person of the same sex caused them to be discharged, in many instances, simply because they refused to lie about who they loved, or lived with, or with whom they engaged in private, consensual relations.
“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one,” reads the epitaph on the tombstone of Leonard Matlovich, a Vietnam War veteran who received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star and who, in the 1970’s, became the first gay service member to fight the ban on gays in the military. The Army and Marine Corps take pride in teaching values such as loyalty, duty, honor, integrity, and courage. They appropriately expect their soldiers to live up to these values. Until the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, however, it was legally required that gay soldiers violate each one of these precepts. The U.S. military expected gay service members to be disloyal to their partners, dishonest with their superiors, and to suppress the personal courage needed to publicly lead lives of integrity.
Discrimination because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation in almost all contexts is morally wrong and unjust. It also is counter-productive. Eighteen years of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has negatively impacted military readiness and weakened the nation. Since 2003, at the very moment when the country desperately needed Arabic-speaking and other foreign language specialists in the war on terror, the military discharged over 300 Arabic and Farsi translators on suspicion of being gay. As the writer Ernest Gaines asked, “Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?”
I am confident that someday we will look back with disbelief on the time when a decorated and capable soldier could be court-martialed simply because he or she had admitted to being gay, or was found to be in a loving relationship with a person of the same gender. Someday perhaps we will express the same sense of dismay as we do now over the racist laws of the Jim Crow South, or the outdated notion that African Americans and women were not capable of effectively serving and defending their country. That the landmark repeal on September 20th came and went with limited fanfare suggests that we are headed in the right direction, that it is just a matter of time.
There will, of course, remain people settled in their narrow and limited mindsets, convinced by misapplied biblical texts or unscientific and disproven views of sexuality that the United States, by embracing acceptance and greater understanding, is a nation in decline. In a generation or two, most of these intolerant voices will be gone. By then, the military will have adjusted to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with little difficulty, and we will be a stronger country. As President Obama reminded us this week, “For more than two centuries, we have worked to extend America’s promise to all our citizens. Our armed forces have been both a mirror and a catalyst of that progress, and our troops, including gays and lesbians, have given their lives to defend the freedoms and liberties that we cherish as Americans.”
As we struggle with the many challenges and issues confronting the country; as we debate the proper means of countering the threat of terrorism and the merits of our continued presence in Afghanistan; as we seek political and economic solutions to increasing poverty and unemployment at home, we can as Americans at least be proud that, by ending the shameful legacy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we have appealed to the better angels of our nature and have upheld the founding ideals of our nation.