09/20/2011 09:35 am ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

A Pivotal Moment

The official end to don't ask, don't tell on September 20th is arguably one of the most significant civil rights achievements of the current generation. It signals that gay Americans are full citizens and should be treated equally. As founders of the lead organization dedicated to ending don't ask, don't tell, let us share why we dedicated much of our professional lives to this goal.

The ideal of the citizen soldier has a rich history. Denying the opportunity to serve to any group of Americans is tantamount to denying their citizenship. The Dred Scott decision upheld "separate but equal" in part on the grounds that African Americans were not permitted to serve in state militias. Allowing known gay people to serve in the military validates our citizenship.

Ending don't ask, don't tell is also significant precisely because it is taking place in the military. Our military is the largest federal employer. The federal government's employment practices set a standard for the rest of the nation. State and local governments that have not banned employment discrimination against gay citizens have one less excuse.

Moreover, the demise of don't ask, don't tell ends the official government gag order on patriotic Americans who were heeding the call to duty. Gay military members were forced to create a heterosexual persona, pretending to be someone they are not. They lived in fear of being witch hunted or turned in by friends if found out. Those who fought for freedom and liberty abroad were denied the same at home and were forced to live in a manner that contradicted military values of integrity and honesty.

With don't ask, don't tell a thing of the past, service members can now come out, if they wish. Coming out is powerful. Data show that those who know us for our true selves are more likely to support our equality. Now, service members from every corner of our great nation will work side by side with gay Americans and see for themselves that business continues as usual.

Dorothy Height once said that the integration of African Americans into our armed forces was one of the most significant steps toward racial equality. President Truman's executive order ending racial segregation in the armed forces predated Brown v. Board of Education by half a decade and the 1964 Civil Rights Act by fifteen years. Similarly, victory over don't ask, don't tell heralds progress toward true equality for gay Americans.

We do not suggest that anti-gay and racial discrimination are equivalent. In the military context, however, the rationales for exclusionary policies as captured in the Congressional Record were virtually the same: trumped up claims over privacy, unit cohesion, morale and performance. In both cases, policies of discrimination proved to be the wrong course for the military and our nation and were ultimately ended.

Don't ask, don't tell's demise marks the first time Congress has acted to end discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans, and that is significant. There has been a breathtaking evolution in acceptance of gay Americans in nearly 18 years since don't ask, don't tell became law. Ending don't ask, don't tell paves the way for future progress on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Will the end of don't ask, don't tell go off without a hitch? No civil rights advance ever has. Some commanders will flout the new guidance to treat everyone fairly. On the whole, however, our combined 46 years of experience on the gay bans dating to the 1980s leads us to believe that the transition will be smooth. Congressional and military leaders have proceeded with deliberation and care. Leadership is key to a successful transition.

Will a new Republican Congress or Administration attempt to reinstate the ban? Possibly, but the military is not likely to embrace this after the long process that led military leaders to determine don't ask, don't tell is not necessary. The end of don't ask, don't tell had significant Republican support in the Senate, including Senators Burr, Collins and Murkowski. Reversing course to drum out the 65,000 gay people who serve in the military would have a costly impact on our military readiness.

We recently asked an active duty airman if he had seen any changes in attitudes. He said he had not: everyone in his unit knew he was gay and it was not a big deal. Another military member, a soldier, told us that he had put a photo of his partner on his desk, but "that was it." We can tell you, things have changed, and that is a big deal.

Co-founders, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network