Setting an Example

One of every 40 men and women serving in the United States military is gay or lesbian.

And each and every one of them face potential discharge every day, regardless of their service record just because of their sexual orientation.

No other member of the US military faces this kind of threat, underscoring the reality that gays and lesbians face more generally in US society: No matter how well off they might be financially, how successful they might be in their careers or their personal lives, they are not full citizens in the eyes of the law.

They cannot serve openly in the military and they face potential workplace discrimination in states without strong antidiscrimination laws. They cannot marry in most states and, even in those where they can, their marriages are not the equal of heterosexual couples because the vast majority of states do not have to recognize them.

That’s what makes ending the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” so important. The law, adopted in 1993 after a compromise between then-President Bill Clinton and the military, allowed gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve in the armed forces but not to be open about their sexual orientation — by declaring it publicly or to family and friends, by attempting to marry or being caught in a homosexual act.

CNN reports that since 1994, estimates place the number of service members discharged under DADT at between 10,500 (military figures) and 13,000 (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network).

Compromise legislation — pushed by the White House with support of the military’s leadership — is moving through Congress. It would repeal DADT, but only after the military completes a review of existing law and the effect its repeal would have on the military and only if repeal is approved by President Barack Obama, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The compromise is probably the best we can hope for, given the makeup of the Senate and the threat of a Republican filibuster. So, it has to be classified as a small victory for human rights.

And yet, it is far too slow, allowing “realism” and “pragmatism” — or fear — to trump fairness for gay and lesbian soldiers, granting the homophobes in the military far too much leeway to determine the pace and, ultimately, the likelihood of change.

On a related but separate note, the DADT battle makes me a bit uncomfortable, because of the inherent contradiction: I oppose militarism and the expansion of the military, tend toward pacificism and loathe the strain in our culture that glorifies the soldier and the warrior ethos. But I also realize that the military can play a normalizing role in society, as it did for African Americans when the military was desegregated under Truman before the Korean War.

The military is viewed by many as the highest calling of citizenship and valor and bravery of black soldiers helped break down, however slowly, the misconceptions and petty prejudices that many held (the hardcore racists have yet to come around and probably won’t). It demonstrated a crack in the philosophical foundation of Jim Crow that only grew wider and wider until it split wide open and collapsed.

The repeal of DADT could have the same effect for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Allowing them to serve openly will make it more difficult for the Neanderthals and homophobes to continue to insist that gays and lesbians must be treated differently. The edifice of discrimination — the marriage ban and all that comes with it, the lack of antidiscrimination statutes covering the LGBT community in too many states and the general aversion too many still feel toward LGBT people — becomes weaker once DADT is a thing of the past.

So slow, deliberate progress, while not entirely acceptable, is progress, after all, a cause for optimism and a reminder that the LGBT community — and those of us who support it — needs to push hard to make sure the progress is not only continuous but that it begins to pick up steam.

We cannot be satisfied until there are no distinctions, until each American has the same rights and privileges and can live the lives each of us choose to live without interference from our neighbors.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in New Jersey. E-mail; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010

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