Yesterday, Admiral Mike Mullen made an impassioned statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee calling for an end to discrimination against LGBT service members in the U.S. Army. This, after President Obama promised to tackle the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell in his State of the Union. Gay soldiers, it looks like this morning, will be allowed to serve openly in this country.
But not soon enough.
In fact, it's going to take a year to study whether the repeal of this policy will have any negative effects on the armed forces and to study how best to implement the change. A year is a long time, perhaps not in politics, but most certainly when it comes to the politics of equality.
For many countries, the United Kingdom and Canada among them, eliminating discrimination in the military came from a hard fought court battle. One day, the issue was being argued in the European Court of Human Rights (for the U.K.), the next it was illegal. Overnight, the military had to change its policies, its practices and military personnel could, quite quickly, choose to out themselves as gay without facing retribution.
This worked, not because Brits and Canadians were somehow (over a decade ago for both countries) more ready for the change than Americans, that they were more open to gay rights or more intrinsically able to accept difference in others. It worked because it had to. That's the way the court system operates most of the time: we don't give you time to get comfortable with the fact that you are breaking the law and have to change your actions.
But the U.S. is approaching things differently. They are asking for more time. The problem is, I can't, for the life of me, figure out what exactly they need a year to do.
U.S. military personnel already serve with gay soldiers who are members of NATO forces. Military personnel serve with gay soldiers in their own forces -- know that some of their fellow soldiers are gay even if they couldn't tell you which ones. If they stop prosecuting and discharging soldiers tomorrow under Don't Ask Don't Tell, nothing would change in the day-to-day operations of the army.
Now, military and non-military advisors will tell you that the year is necessary because they need to understand how having gay soldiers will affect family housing, benefits etc. They will tell you that they need to analyze how this will impact the military's budget (extending bereavement payments and partner benefits to the estimated 66, 000 gay soldiers might cost some money). But what they won't tell you is that, legally, there is nothing stopping the military from simply extending all existing benefits to same-sex partners. It is, in fact, something Obama did for federal employees -- in a limited way -- through a very quick and efficient executive order just last year. In terms of cost, those benefits will be a drop in the $515.4 billion military budget.
Unlike the U.K. and Canada, the U.S. is trudging towards equality through a political, rather than judicial process. There is value in having political change come from the people's representatives, rather than ordered from the bench. It leads to more popular support and that is important for the LGBT community. But the benefit of support for a measure the majority of Americans agree with already does not outweigh the cost of an entire year of discharges, emotional and physical abuse of LGBT soldiers and the general stress and pain of risking your life for your country while also hiding a fundamental part of who you are, who you love and how you live.
A year is a long time when your family and your job are on the line.
There is no reason why the government cannot immediately suspend Don't Ask Don't Tell discharges. There is certainly no reason why they must wait a year to figure out how to stop discriminating against a group of soldiers who will spend every day of that year risking their lives to further U.S. government objectives.
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