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The Road to Gays in the Military Runs through Iowa

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Last week, just as Iowa decided it was ready to let gay couples marry, Rachel Maddow asked Colin Powell if the nation was ready to let gay patriots serve openly and honestly in the military. Powell was one of a tiny group of powerful men who were single-handedly responsible for preserving the gay ban in 1993 when Bill Clinton sought to end it. As part of his Party-crossing endorsement of Barack Obama for president, Powell said last year it was time to "review" the "don't ask, don't tell" policy but has gone no further.

Amazingly, in his answer last week Powell turned the clock back to 1993. Repeating his own shibboleths from that year, Powell said the military is "a unique institution with rules and regulations" that would never pass "constitutional muster if it was in civilian society." Because the military requires "living in close proximity" and soldiers "are told whom you're going to live with," and because it is such an important institution of American power, Powell said, "we have to be careful when we change this policy."

Powell's failure of leadership has long disappointed many of us. And it isn't helping his friend Barack Obama on this issue, who is increasingly likely to face a deeply divided military community because of the silence or antagonism of leaders like Powell and over 1000 retired officers who are now urging Obama to continue throwing out mission-critical specialists because they're gay.

But more important, Powell's comments make no sense. For starters, if the military gets to tell soldiers who they'll live with, why can't it tell them they have to live with gays? And as Iowa's movement on same-sex marriage shows, the last remaining argument for the military's gay ban--that young men in the nation's heartland could never accept serving alongside gays--has been totally dismantled.

Here's how the road to--and out of--"don't ask, don't tell" runs through Iowa. Powell says that the unique nature of the military, and its role in defending America's national security, mean it can trample rights that civilian institutions never could. This is the doctrine known as "judicial deference" to the military, and there are times when it is proper for the courts to defer to military judgment. But "judicial deference" does not give the military a blank check to do whatever it wants. Instead, the courts must determine if a given action has a "rational relationship" to a "compelling governmental interest," and can only defer if they decide it does. So far, federal courts have indeed determined that banning open gays from service is a compelling governmental interest, even though no research has ever shown any detriment whatsoever to the military by openly gay service. Wisely, a court's interpretation of the meaning of "rational" and "compelling" evolves as the culture evolves, allowing the courts to stay in sync with an ever-changing reality.

Enter Iowa.

In 1988, the state's Republican caucus placed Pat Robertson ahead of George H.W. Bush, even though the Christian Coalition founder blamed natural disasters on gays and spoke in tongues. Twenty years later, the state's high court has unanimously ruled that denying gays equal protection can on longer be seen to further an "important governmental objective" and that such exclusion is "without a constitutionally sufficient justification."

Yet the same determination by federal courts in upholding the ban on gay troops rested on a cultural debate where Iowa figured prominently. One colonel, for instance, said in 1993 that he didn't think gays would "ever be openly accepted in the military" by "corn-fed guys from Iowa." In fact, the whole apparatus of anti-gay discrimination in the military is built on the story-line--never proven--that 18-year-olds from Iowa and Kansas are homophobes who can't tolerate serving with gays. Former Senator John Warner said most recruits are "coming out of what are usually small towns, and high school environments" where they are taught by parents and in Sunday School that homosexuality is wrong. "In their own simple way of thinking it through," he said of these idealized small-town men, "they may just be right." Warner used this romantic vision of small-town America, presumably free of the messy burdens of homosexuality, to endorse the intolerance he claimed not to have.

But the day Iowa decides that gays are just like everyone else signals an end to the military's rationale that it must exclude gays in order to protect the morale of our heartland youth. This is not just a cultural argument; it's a legal argument: the only Constitutional grounds for denying gays the right to serve is that, given the culture of our heartland, which draws the bulk of our military recruits, national security requires the exclusion of gays. Iowa's unanimous Supreme Court decision only echoes--with grand symbolism--what polls both in and outside the military have said for the last five years: that whatever intolerance the nation used to have toward gays and lesbians has fallen to a sufficiently minimal and contained degree, that there is no longer any basis--if ever there was--for banning gays from service.

So what to make of Colin Powell? When the general described last fall why he was endorsing Barack Obama for president, I fought back tears. The son of Jamaican immigrants had become the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and knew something about both racism in America and the power of the American dream to transcend it. Early in his career, he wrote that the military "affords the opportunity for advancement that regrettably is not in every part of our society," but that he hoped would "spread to all parts of our society so that only achievement and performance will be the basis for advancement."

In endorsing Obama, Powell praised him as "transformational," "aspirational" and "inclusive." And in response to charges that Obama is a Muslim, Powel spoke out movingly not only against the false charge, but against the implication that somehow being Muslim was the worst thing in the world: "The really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America." In that statement, Powell didn't only defend Obama, he defended all of America, and what it stands for.

Powell's experience as an African American surely made him more mindful of the victimization of Muslim Americans. The experience of being black and being Muslim in America are quite different, but as someone who has suffered from racial discrimination, Powell was able to notice and oppose an ugly episode of discrimination against other victims beyond his own group.

Not so gay Americans. By repeating ad nauseam that the service of open gays would harm "order and discipline," and would be "difficult to accommodate," Powell, like Senator Warner, legitimized prejudice in the ranks. Unlike his moving comments about Muslim Americans, Powell said it was not for him to "make a moral judgment" about whether being gay was "a correct lifestyle or not." His remarks rationalized his own failure to support equal treatment. It was what Admiral John Hutson, former Judge Advocate General of the Navy, has called a "moral passing of the buck."

Now imagine what true moral leadership might have looked like. To the question, is someone in the military gay, and is that okay? Powell might have answered this way: "The really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being gay in this country? The answer's no, that's not America." In that statement, which Powell has yet to make, he would have defended not just gay Americans, but all of America, and what it stands for.