05/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Embarrassment to the Uniform

It is time to put an end to institutionalized homophobia within the United States military. A society that prides itself on the constitutional preservation of citizen rights and legal protection of our civil rights should not tolerate continued official endorsement of irrational prejudice within the very body charged with forcibly defending those unalienable rights.

I don't come to this conclusion as an idealistic bystander. I have served as an officer in the United States Air Force for the last 18 years. At every step in my service I have been repeatedly informed of my responsibility to prevent discrimination based on gender, race and religion. I was also specifically instructed on my responsibility to neither ask nor tell when it came to issues of sexual orientation.

To be quite honest, however, I never found it necessary to ask my fellow service members whether they were hetero- or homosexual. My focus -- during tours of duty across the planet -- was on the mission. I, and my fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, met that task with little interest in what took place in another service member's bedroom.

The same, alas, can not be said of the officers who were appointed over me. As the 15 April 2009 Washington Post editorial by General Lindsay, Admiral Johnson, Lt General Shuler, and General Went demonstrates, senior officers apparently have a lot of time to worry about their subordinates' bedmate preferences. These senior officers also suffer no compunction about publicly proclaiming an irrational prejudice not tolerated among lower ranking service members.

I realize, of course, the four officers listed above are retired -- and therefore believe they have a right to express such sentiments. Unfortunately, the close-minded perspective they advocate is alive and well among their active-duty cohorts. Consider, for example, a comment General Peter Pace, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made on 12 March 2007.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Pace told reporters "I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe that the armed forces of the United States are well served by saying through our policies that it's OK to be immoral in any way." Sadly, General Pace is not expressing a minority view. A recent poll finds 58% of the uniformed members of the armed forces oppose lifting a ban on openly gay people serving with the Air Force, Army, Navy, or Marines -- and at least 10% are threatening to leave if the rules are changed.

Here's the catch, I bet a poll of senior officers and their subordinates in 1948 would have revealed similar sentiments. Only then the issue was desegregation of the armed services. How similar is the conversation? Arguing against allowing African-Americans to serve side-by-side with white soldiers, Army General Omar Bradley warned it was not the business of the armed services to conduct "social experiments."

President Truman publicly admonished General Bradley for his comments and I suspect President Obama may be forced to offer similar rebuke of vocal high-ranking officers in the future. But many of us who have served in the trenches do not need convincing. As General Shalikashvili, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, wrote in January 2007, "Last year I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq. [...] These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers. [...] I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces."

Given that General Lindsay, Admiral Johnson, Lt General Shuler, and General Went felt perfectly comfortable openly avowing their prejudice, President Obama is going to have to take a strong stand about discrimination against gay Americans. The president claimed he wanted to demonstrate a sense of inclusiveness by having Rick Warren, who has an admitted anti-gay political agenda, give the invocation at his inauguration. Now he has the chance to exhibit such inclusiveness by allowing gay men and women to openly serve in the military. It's time to put an end to this politically-abetted discrimination that is such an embarrassment to the uniform.