The Dream of Equality Is for All, Not 'Almost All'

02/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Aubrey Sarvis Former Executive Director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the immense and immensely enthusiastic crowd that filled the Mall and beyond on this cold, bright morning, stretching from the Capitol, past the Washington Monument, around the Reflecting Pool, to the Lincoln Memorial and the Potomac. Estimates of its size range from 1.4 million people to two million and perhaps more if those lining Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the inaugural parade in the afternoon are included. Washington has never seen such numbers.

But it was not so much the numbers of the crowd as its mood, which was at once jubilant and serious, joyous and sober. And we have plenty to be sober about, but for the moment the country is full of hope as we continue the "ongoing journey of America to become America," as Queen Latifah put it at the concert Sunday that launched the inaugural festivities.

"We have chosen hope over fear," President Obama said in his inaugural address, "unity of purpose over conflict and discord... The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

Inspiring words indeed, but lest we bask in too much self-congratulation, we're not there yet. "All" may deserve a chance "to pursue their full measure of happiness," but all are not getting it. "All" includes men and women of every hue, of every opinion, of every rank and class. It should also include all men and women regardless of their sexual orientation. It does not. The law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" that forbids gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces of the United States is still firmly on the books.

President Obama noted in his address that his father, born in Kenya to African parents, "less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant." His own father! Sixty years ago in Washington, DC, he would have been turned away at the door. The President might have added that little more than 60 years ago his father would not have been allowed to serve in the same military unit as a white man. (I say "man" because there were no women in the white men's units.) President Truman took care of that by executive order.

Now the military is integrated by race and by gender. Neither the president nor his father would have any trouble joining up. In the current situation, in fact, they would have been eagerly welcomed. It is only gays and lesbians who need not apply. It is one of the last official vestiges of discrimination based on sexual orientation. The President has vowed to change that, and let us hope the change comes sooner rather than later. Change needs the President's continued leadership. It needs the support of Defense Secretary Gates, of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and of their chairman, Admiral Mullen. It's already got the support of the American people and of any number of flag officers. Now it needs Congress to get behind it. Congress passed the law, Congress must repeal it -- and pass another law opening military service to all who are qualified, not almost all.

"Yes we can," as President Obama said many times in his campaign. And yes, the people did, and Barack Hussein Obama won. He is now the 44th President of the United States. Hopes are high. Not just Americans are counting on him. The world is counting on him. And here at home millions in the LGBT community, and thousands of gays and lesbians now serving their country but forced to serve in silence, they are counting on him too.

Bono, the lead singer of the band U2, said at Sunday's inaugural concert that the dream of which Obama spoke is not just an American dream. "It's also an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream, an Israeli dream, and also a Palestinian dream."

It is a noble dream. And it is the dream of gays and lesbians in America. Now is the time to realize it.