06/02/2010 06:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Love and War, Honoring the Commitment of Gay Americans

Last week, Congress took a historic step toward undoing government discrimination against lesbian and gay Americans. In a resounding and bipartisan vote, the House of Representatives by 234-194 authorized repeal of military discrimination -- trivialized by its common name, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The Senate Armed Services Committee voted for the same measure, and hopefully, the full Senate will swiftly send the bill to the President's desk.

When asked to explain their votes, we heard again and again from lawmakers that it is wrong and un-American to single out a group for discriminatory and unequal treatment; as Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, repealing military discrimination would "make America more American." With the long-overdue vote to authorize an end to the military's anti-gay policy, Speaker Pelosi declared, "we honor the values of our nation, and we close the door on fundamental unfairness." She is only partly right. While repealing military discrimination certainly honors the values of our nation, it is only a step toward closing the door on fundamental unfairness.

Congress mandated military discrimination in 1993 in a shameful display of prejudice and fear mongering aimed at gay and lesbian Americans. The hypocritical and cruel "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy imposed on gay people serving our country was as unfair, unreasonable, and unconstitutional then as it is now. Since 1993, Americans have come a long way in their understanding of gay people and the unfair nature of discrimination against the LGBT community. Congress has finally caught up with the American people in supporting an end to military discrimination, which, as the experience of our allies who have ended similar discrimination in their armed forces shows, serves no valid purpose. Military discrimination makes America less safe and is a stain on our commitment to equal treatment and equal respect under the law.

Unfortunately, after approving military discrimination in 1993, Congress took further steps to isolate and stigmatize lesbian and gay Americans. Three years later, in 1996, in another orchestrated campaign of scare tactics, Congress passed the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act," making marriage discrimination federal policy for the first time in American history. DOMA inserted the federal government into what was always the states' role under the Constitution to determine who may marry, and it created two classes of marriage, those the federal government respects, and those which, even when legally sanctioned, are denied every one of the more than a thousand federal protections and responsibilities afforded to married couples, including critical access to Social Security, immigration, health-coverage, and spousal tax benefits.

Military service, like marriage, has long been considered a defining element of citizenship and full participation in society. And military discrimination, like exclusion from marriage, is one of the cruelest and most unfair ways in which gay Americans endure inequality at the hands of their own government. Even the architects of these discriminatory laws have changed their minds and publicly called for their repeal. Colin Powell, a key advocate of military discrimination in 1993, now publicly opposes that policy. Likewise, President Clinton and former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, who signed and authored DOMA in 1996, now support its repeal.

The vast majority of Americans support repealing military discrimination, and once the bill is signed, the President and military leaders should move quickly to finish the job. And as soon as Congress finalizes the bill authorizing repeal, it should turn its attention to removing the equally repugnant 1996 law mandating federal discrimination in marriage and get government out of the business of discriminating against any American.

I believe that Speaker Pelosi and the majority of Americans do indeed want to "close the door" on fundamental unfairness and unequal treatment of gay and lesbian citizens by the government. Repealing military discrimination is a meaningful stride toward full and equal citizenship for all, but before we can declare the door closed on discrimination, we must stop denying committed couples, who happen to be gay, the equal right to cross the threshold.