They serve in Iraq. They fight in Afghanistan. Their names are etched in marble at Arlington National Cemetery. And three out of four Americans believe they shouldn't be forced to lie to serve the country for which they are prepared to die.
Seventeen years have passed since the Congress took up the issue of allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve in the military without fear of reprisal and discharge. The resulting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law was a politically expedient, split-the-difference outcome that served no one's needs, least of all the military's, which was forced to expel nearly 14,000 capable, qualified, and courageous men and women from its ranks for a reason unrelated to their ability or willingness to answer the call.
Against today's cultural landscape, the congressional debate of 1993 - with its focus on immorality and deviance, and its dire predictions of rampant AIDS infections and a second-rate military -- seems oddly foreign.
Half of our active duty service men and women are under 30 years of age. The backbone of our military is formed by a generation which largely does not believe that someone's sexual orientation affects their ability to serve their country. The notion that they would be asked to serve with someone who is known to be gay is more likely to produce a shrug than a shout.
But it's not just young people; it's all Americans. Recent polling reveals majority support for repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell across the political spectrum, including moderates, Independents and Republicans. And this view -- that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a relic of the past -- is shared by our senior military leadership, who see the law as not serving the needs of our armed forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, both originally appointed by President George W. Bush, have testified in favor of repealing the law and put in place a process to determine how best to implement that transition. Former architects of the law have added their voices to the chorus, and even Dick Cheney thinks "it's time to reconsider the policy."
As the public and the Pentagon warm to repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, defenders of the law find themselves at sea on a sinking ship, isolated and adrift, struggling to find a justification for preserving the status quo. Even Senator Saxby Chambliss, a repeal opponent, talks like the law is a relic of the past: "Today, we know we've got gay and lesbian soldiers serving. They've served in the past; they're going to serve in the future; and they're going to serve in a very valiant way."
The U.S. military is an institution that demands discipline and professionalism. Age, gender, race, and sexual orientation fade away when an individual is trained to carry out a mission in which his or her life and the lives of others depend. Military service is the great equalizer, and when done properly many are unified into one, wherein self-interest is subjugated to the most authentic and virtuous of American ideals: duty.
Congress bears a duty as well. It must have faith, as the American people, our President and our military leaders do, in our armed forces' ability to recruit and retain the most skilled and patriotic men and women who want to serve their country. It is time to put the focus back where it belongs: on the mission, not an individual's personal life. Congress should repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Andy Johnson is the national security director at Third Way, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank. He is the former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee and has 26 years of experience in the national security sector. Rachel Laser is the culture director at Third Way.