02/14/2012 11:15 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Connecting the Dots

During Black History Month, we gaze on the fading photographs and videos from the '50s and '60s as if we were looking at life on another planet, something so far from our reality today that it's hard to imagine: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Malcolm X in the old Madison Square Garden, the exuberantly rhyming Mohammad Ali, and the unforgettable sight of nine brave African-American teenagers entering Central High School in Little Rock under the protection of armed federal troops and the newly nationalized Arkansas National Guard.

These students, civil rights leaders, and people of all races who saw the difference between justice and injustice, between American ideals and American reality, brought an end to an American society that is almost unrecognizable to us now. For people under 40, it is something they read about in history books; they have no memory of that time. They cannot remember, let alone imagine, that there was an ugly time in this country when African Americans were confined to the back of the bus, where the races had separate drinking fountains and were prohibited by law and custom from sitting at the same lunch counters in the South.

But the old photographs, television clips, and history books today bear witness. The evidence is all over the Web, on YouTube, and on Wikipedia, and students now the ages of the Little Rock Nine learn about those events in their own textbooks. Those visionaries and the events they brought to pass changed our country forever.

President Obama has repeatedly acknowledged his debt to that generation of civil rights leaders and demonstrators who kept their eyes on the goal in the face of demeaning and sometimes brutal treatment. He knows that but for them, he would not be in the White House today.

Likewise, Jeh Johnson, the president's top lawyer at the Defense Department, isn't shy about acknowledging his debt to the heroic black leaders of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years. Last week Mr. Johnson noted, "But for Dr. King, Little Rock, and the sacrifices of those who sat at lunch counters and on city buses, I would not hold this position today, nor would other doors and opportunities be open to me."

The president and Mr. Johnson make clear their debt to the past. Likewise, the future will stand on their courage and that of a handful of key policy makers responsible for repealing the discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) law. President Obama and Mr. Johnson belong at the top of that list, as does Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. They well know that repeal would never have happened without the struggles of previous generations, who fought to end racial segregation in our military, and who continued to fight to admit women to the service academies and to military occupations that were previously closed to them.

Obama, Mullen, and Johnson understood that repeal of DADT was necessary to make our military stronger and ensure that the services reflect the values of our country. They also knew that it didn't happen in a vacuum. Successful congressional and executive action came about only after decades of hard work, sacrifice, and blood.

I wonder, though, if some of us in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, including Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, always make the same connections. Do we draw the dots back to those long, lonely, and sometimes bloody civil rights battles on which we stand? Does the LGBT community fully appreciate the shoulders we stand on today as the fight continues for full LGBT equality in the military, the right to marry, and the end to employment discrimination?

Ending DADT came about because LGBT service members, veterans, their families, and supporters pushed back and fought -- and never gave up. But repeal can also be traced directly back to those extraordinary civil rights leaders who bravely fought discrimination and second-class citizenship.

It's important to keep drawing these dots and making these connections. Let us not forget to remember.