Americans Have Moved Past ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ Pols Haven’t

It seems like the older GOP generation hasn’t moved past this discrimination.

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By Mary Kate Cary Thomas Jefferson Street blog 

Think about what's happened in American pop culture over the last 17 years, when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" first was voted into law by Congress --from Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet, to the success of the series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; to the films Milk and Brokeback Mountain each winning multiple Oscars. I know in my own life, I've seen a sea change in the way friends, neighbors, and coworkers who are gay are treated by society. Everyone I know in my suburban, carpooling existence has at least one friend or a loved one who is gay--something that wasn't necessarily true 20 years ago. 

In his State of the Union address, the President announced that he would work with Congress to repeal the ban on openly gay Americans serving in the military, as the Canadians, British, French, South Africans and Israelis have done. At yesterday's hearing on the matter, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the question is not whether the U.S. military will enact the change, but rather how it will. (His proposal: a high-level working group to make recommendations and move to implement a new policy within the next year, pending Congressional approval.) 

As good as Gates was, it was the Bush-appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, who stunned the crowd: "Speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do ... No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me personally, it comes down to integrity--theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."

Gates is right that this is a done deal, and that it needs to be done right--meaning, done the military way. Many gay-rights advocates are impatient that the president should fix this with the stroke of a pen, but the military needs to handle this in the way they've done it before ... by commissioning a working group first, getting Congressional approval, then implementing the change throughout its world-wide bureaucracy. And Mullen is right that this is about integrity. It's the right thing to do no matter how you look at it. Today General Colin Powell agreed with Mullen and Gates

Why more Republicans can't seem to see that is beyond me. Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard takes a slap at banning Don't Ask "because it is in some abstract way 'the right thing.'" He continues: "It isn't a change an appreciable number of Americans are clamoring for. And even if one understood this change to be rectifying an injustice, the fact is it's an injustice that affects perhaps a few thousand people in a nation of 300 million." So, since minorities are just that--minorities--it's okay to discriminate against them? 

Sen. John McCain said that he'd change his stance and support repealing the ban if the top brass supported it. Well, here was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs--not exactly the bottom brass--endorsing it because of what it says about the integrity of our entire military. Did McCain change his mind, as he said he would? No, according to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who was covering the hearing: "McCain and four Republican colleagues left before the hearing ended, and the other six GOP members of the panel didn't show up at all." As a Republican, that made me cringe. 

One family friend of ours who is gay and who has been with his partner longer than my husband and I have been married, shrugged when I asked him about the resistance to gays in the military. "It's a generational thing," he said, "Once the older generation is no longer fighting this, things will change." John McCain is part of that older generation, which may partly explain his reticence on this. Mullen is, too, but the difference is that the men and women he represents--our troops--are mostly from a younger generation. He gets it. 

Another friend of mine who is a former Marine told me recently of what happened to him as a young soldier: he ended up unemployed and living in a trailer park after being forced out of the Marines on suspicion of being gay. (He's made a new life for himself since then.) He didn't get caught doing anything; they just suspected he was gay. And here he was, volunteering to give his life for our country. As an American, that made me cringe. 

That kind of discrimination is what former U.S. Solicitor General and conservative legal scholar Ted Olson addressed in his opening arguments of the Prop 8 trial in California, which seeks to determine the constitutionality of banning same-sex marriages. Granted, he's not talking about Don't Ask Don't Tell, but to me, he might as well be:  

There is no rational justification for this unique pattern of discrimination. Proposition 8 ... advances no legitimate state interest. All it does is label gay and lesbian persons as different, inferior, unequal, and disfavored. And it brands their relationships as not the same, and less-approved than those enjoyed by opposite sex couples. It stigmatizes gays and lesbians, classifies them as outcasts, and causes needless pain, isolation and humiliation.

It is unconstitutional.

To the most respected minds in the military and the law, this is a civil rights issue, one that goes to each person's basic dignity, and to our integrity as human beings. To the rest of us, this seems like a no-brainer, a non-issue that seems so ... last century. I'd like to think most Americans moved past this a long time ago. Apparently our politicians haven't. 

Members of the Party of Lincoln need to remember their history of fighting discrimination against minorities. Have they forgotten that one of the fundamental principles of being a conservative is a belief in the individual, in equality for all Americans under the law? The sooner Republicans like Bill Kristol and John McCain can see that, the better. For us all.