In his State of the Union speech last Wednesday, President Obama called for a repeal of the controversial "Don't ask, don't tell" directive that has kept gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military. Against the backdrop of California's continuing debate over gay marriage, the President's statement reflects how far we've come in accepting equality for gays and lesbians, and how far we still have to go.
In the mid 90's, I was a young naval officer stationed in Japan, responsible for 65 sailors. While the "gays in the military" issue embroiled Washington, D.C., it wasn't a vital question out in the field. Everyone knew that there were gays in the ranks of every service, but few gave the fact a second thought, simply because the military is a mission-focused organization. Soldiers don't spend much time agonizing over race, gender, creed or sexual preferences, so long as the indispensable qualities of dependability, honesty, self-sacrifice and integrity are assured.
Despite this, back then I opposed President Clinton's call for immediate military integration, partially because of the way he approached the issue. Instead of creating a discussion, it felt like he was trying to cram a solution down our throats, whether we liked it or not. Further, near the navy base in Japan where I was stationed, a gay sailor, Seaman Allen R. Schindler, was beaten to death only the year before by two of his shipmates. Back then, it seemed better to
just let sleeping dogs lie.
Yet the times have changed, and so have my own views. While the military remains a reflection of society in general, that society has become more tolerant. Just as there is now a broad acceptance of gays in every facet of American society, there is also broad acceptance of gays in the current generation of the military, both amongst the rank-in-file as well as the leadership. According to 2006 Zogby data, "nearly three in four troops (73%) say they are personally comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians." Of the 20% who said they are uncomfortable around gays and lesbians, only a quarter of these, or 5% of all troops, are "very" uncomfortable, while only 2% said knowing that gays are not allowed to serve openly was an important reason in their decision to join the military.
"Don't Ask Don't Tell" has also had an unfortunate effect on our safety. A GAO report found that between 1998 and 2003, more than 60 linguists specializing in Arabic or Farsi were expelled from the military for being gay -- linguists who would have been critical in helping warn us about 9/11, or helping us in Afghanistan and Iraq. We need smart, dedicated service members in the ranks -- who cares if they're gay or straight?
I recently asked a Marine Corps colonel about the current Department of Defense policy of "Don't ask, don't tell." The officer defended the policy, saying that discussions about sex don't belong in the workplace, especially in military. Yet this isn't an issue of discussing sex in the workplace. It's a simple matter of equality. Americans -- including those who've volunteered to serve their country in the most dangerous situations imaginable -- should not have to hide who they are.
No one doubts that gays have always served honorably in the military, but up until now they have served in the shadows. This must change. Since the early 90's, America has followed its dramatic successes in granting women's rights and civil rights to become more accepting of gays as well. Now it is time for the next step in a long progression of American tolerance, by allowing gays to serve in our military in the light of day. It's time.