12/29/2010 03:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Repeal, Redemption, and Ripple Effects

Any talk of redeeming acts in public life tends to focus on individuals. Character and career are the arcs of this familiar story line, punched up by celebrity and smudged, perhaps, by cynicism. So unaccustomed are reporters and players in national politics to an act of collective redemption that it may pass unheralded amid the hoopla and scorekeeping of winners and losers.

What transpired this month in Washington, D.C., with repeal of the ban on openly gay and lesbian members of the military is nothing less than shared, institutional redemption. It rekindles faith in federal governance. And it holds out hope that coalition and bipartisan pressure will push long-delayed imperatives like immigration reform to passage.

The year-end victory to nix "don't ask, don't tell" reaffirms the effectiveness of the President who pledged the policy's elimination. It also reminds Americans that Congress can rise above the gridlock threatened by a rump group of conservatives to answer the call of conscience and common sense.

Republicans who take over the House in January should not spoil the aftermath by lashing out at gays or immigrants. Some in their ranks threaten policy swipes against marriage equality in the District of Columbia or the constitution's guarantee of birthright citizenship for babies born on U.S. soil. Meant to appease base instincts and base voters, such moves do little more than solidify an image of spiteful intolerance in the minds of recession-weary Americans.

By contrast, repeal is the kind of solution voters expect from Capitol Hill. Mounting evidence of the needless pain and wasted talent, and dollars, inflicted by the policy took 17 years to muster the bipartisan majorities needed to end it. Direct casualties of "don't ask, don't tell" topped 13,000. Meanwhile the talking points for undoing it evolved from social justice to concern about corrosion of group morale and personal integrity and undermining core functions and the war effort.

Major Forces for Change
This shift in tone, led by opponents of the ban, marked a major expansion of the repeal coalition. Retired general Colin Powell came out against the modified ban last February, seven years to the week following his U.N. speech justifying invasion and regime change in Iraq--and 17 years to the month after announcing resistance to a bid by a prior Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to lift the ban.

Powell's public change of heart--citing "acceptance of gays and lesbians in society"--reinforced anti-ban comments by Obama's holdover Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Mike Mullen, a successor to Powell as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Hawks on Capitol Hill took to echoing these voices. Soon vultures were circling over a dying policy. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Independent, co-authored the stand-alone Senate repeal bill with Susan Collins, the Maine Republican. Their legislation won a wider-than-expected 65-to-31 vote of approval by their colleagues on December 18th. Four days later, with relief and exhilaration adding to the quality of a joyous family reunion, President Obama signed the repeal bill into law at a pre-holiday ceremony at the White House.

How, Not If
Credit for charting the bipartisan flight path to passage belongs to two under-appreciated heroes. Michigan senator Carl Levin, chair of the Armed Services committee, tenaciously opposed the ban. When repeal seemed to run into bureaucratic roadblocks in the spring, triggering anguish and impatience among allies, Levin gained assurances from Secretary Gates that lifting the ban was a question of "how, not if."

In the House, Iraq war veteran and Representative Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) made good on Nancy Pelosi's promise to do away with "don't ask, don't tell" within the year. Murphy's passionate advocacy for the ban's demise stands as a lasting profile in courage all the more for the tinge of sacrifice attending his quest. Some Republicans resented his leadership on the issue, and he narrowly lost reelection Nov. 2 in his swing district on Philadelphia's outskirts.

Moral and Fiscal Costs
The emergence of military, Republican, and veteran support for a key piece of LGBT-rights legislation made some longtime activists and repeal supporters feel like a parallel universe was taking shape around them. No one savored the fading of old divisions and the closing of ranks in support of repeal more than service members and military families shattered by "don't ask, don't tell."

For 17 years, interviewing those touched by the ban revealed tales of cruelty and compelled duplicity that defy all estimates of cost, moral and fiscal--and the terms of the policy itself. These include male trainees hounded by renegade crewmates and wayward instructors, through interrogation, imprisonment, and breakdown, to declare their sexual orientation. All too common were travails of women in uniform, lesbian-baited to the point of assault, only to be blamed for their own harassment and expulsion.

And there was the pair of female and male same-sex couples, each with at least one partner in the forces, who maintained adjoining apartments so that they could pretend to live as cohabiting heterosexuals upon investigation or surprise inspection.

That such ingenuity and denial became the price of continued service throughout two entire administrations and seven Congresses (6 of them under Republican control) is a lasting scourge that belies our notions of national progress. It also mocks the founding principles we teach our youngest to recite in the Pledge of Allegiance: that America stands for "liberty and justice for all."

At the same time, repeal of the manifestly unfair and hurtful law speaks to the capacity of the democratic process to reform and self-correct. It also testifies, as Powell said, to the change in Americans' hearts and minds that LGBT activists and allies have achieved.

Demise of a Double Standard
Turning back the clock 17 years, pundits at the time of the law's codification said that "don't ask, don't tell" reflected a begrudging toleration of gay people's existence, not honest acceptance, that went far beyond the military. As one friend with a lesbian sibling told me at the time, "No inquiries and no openness is the status quo in my family regarding my sister." She admitted, "It's not fair, I know. But you'd have a hard time selling us on anything closer than that to a truly even playing field."

Double standards cast a long shadow. If there is are any lessons Americans, gay and non-gay alike, took away from the spate of bullying-related suicides by gay or questioning youth in 2010, it may be that sadism is not innocent and that it can be fatal. The spectrum of bullying begins with acceptance of double standards.

To the extent that institutions formalize and defend such standards, they enable abuse of a stigmatized group. Insofar as repealing "don't ask, don't tell" ends a double standard, it will discourage sadistic behavior, in and beyond military bases and households, reaching throughout America and our presence overseas.

I know service members who have returned from combat duty whose public reaction to repeal is "so what." They mimic the 70 percent of troops who indicate in this year's Pentagon-sponsored survey that elimination of "don't ask, don't tell" presents no problem to them.

I also know senior personnel who exult in the policy's repeal. "This thing made people believe that they had to reject peers simply because they might be gay or lesbian," one officer told me. "Worse yet, it made people who were gay or lesbian reject an unchangeable part of themselves. Tell me how that helps my unit be the best it can be, in any way."

Federal Goals Reflect State-Based Gains
Winning repeal augurs well for other long-delayed gay-rights measures. These include a federal law barring workplace bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity, a protection so fundamental that most Americans already believe it to be law, as it is in numerous states and localities, including D.C.

It also means repealing the repressive law known as the Defense of Marriage Act, which holds same-sex unions unfit for any federal recognition and effectively quarantines such marriages within the fair-minded states that honor them.

The same strategy of escalating legal pressure through carefully selected court cases to overcome legislative inertia that contributed to repeal will pay dividends on non-discrimination and marriage equality.

Indeed, the state-based fights over these related struggles may well have informed and inspired the persistence of repeal proponents in Congress.

Lieberman hails from Connecticut, one of the six jurisdictions in the nation where LGBT families have secured full marriage equality.

Collins, representing Maine, claimed her Senate seat in 1996, one year after a vigorous homegrown gay-rights coalition won a statewide vote to keep the door open for other protections, gained incrementally in the past 14 years.

Michiganders, whom Levin serves as senior senator, have witnessed a bruising city-by-city battle over basic nondiscrimination coverage so divisive that it shows signs of fracturing the Republican Party.

And Pennsylvania, which Murphy represented for two terms, saw LBGT activists and allies succeed in thwarting a move by antigay conservatives to place an amendment limiting marriage before voters. The strategic win fueled hope that pro-active gay-rights measures might soon gain traction, and passage, in the commonwealth.

Speaking Solidarity
As a social movement, LGBT people have leveraged the metaphor of the closet to convey the personal obligation and political power of coming out. In struggling for equality under law, the movement has borrowed the language of labor and civil-rights quests to great effect.

Emulation is not only the sincerest form of flattery. For social movements, it is a signal that the effort has matured and captured the imagination of a broader audience. Just as repeal won passage, immigration-reform proponents saw their fight to gain a path for citizenship for undocumented students and service members founder with Senate blockage of the DREAM Act. Some of the students pushing the bill bravely stepped out of the shadows and risked deportation by speaking about its firsthand urgency. Fueling their determination, and certainty in ultimate triumph, is the command to come out and thereby overcome legal barriers from gay icon Harvey Milk.

Even when their native tongues and accents differ, those on the front lines of America's freedom movements are more fluent than ever in a common language of conscience and a shared vocabulary of fairness. For a president whose reelection prospects benefited from his repeal success, it is a language he knows well. He redeems his leadership each time he speaks it. For a Congress afflicted by infighting and intransigence, it is a language they sometimes barely seem to hear. But they redeem the people's trust in the republic each time they heed it.