Today, the president will sign a bill repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the 1993 law that bars gays from serving openly in the military. Given the amount of public support for allowing gay people to serve openly (over two-thirds of Americans favor repeal), it had largely become a question of when and how -- and not if -- the law would be repealed. All except the most committed opponents had abandoned arguing on the merits; they quibbled about process, timing, and implementation. On this issue, conservatives made clear they were in what Focus on the Family's James Dobson described as a cultural "holding pattern," trying to delay the inevitable.
For all the sad stories of gay service members who've been victims of this institutionalized discrimination, the fight over DADT has been about more than just gays in the military (who, by some estimates, already make up 2 percent of active service members). The true fight has been about what it means to say, "I am gay" -- whether the affirmation is cause for social -- and in the military, literal -- ostracism and exclusion or whether it's a neutral means of describing yourself. As with the fight over the term "marriage" -- which is what was at stake in the Prop. 8 battle in California -- the ability to say you're gay without reprisal is really about the normalization of homosexuality.
As Judge Virginia Phillips noted in striking down the law this past September, for all the talk about "homosexual behavior" and the comfort of straight soldiers, DADT was always primarily a restriction on speech. Very few discharges involved a colleague or superior walking in on someone in bed, or -- despite the bizarre paranoia of some critics -- gay service members molesting a colleague. (Of course existing military codes already prohibit this sort of behavior, but in the minds of "don't ask, don't tell" supporters, DADT was the only thing protecting virginal straight soldiers from rapacious homosexuals.) Most discharges were carried out based on statements that demonstrated one's "propensity" to engage in homosexual behavior, chief among them a verbal admission of being gay. In a sense, this is what made DADT such an abhorrent and fundamental assault on individual freedom: Like being forbidden to speak your own name, it denied gay people the simple right to identify themselves. As queer theorist Judith Butler pointed out in a well-known 1997 essay, the 1993 law was primarily concerned with giving others extensive guidelines for determining who counts as gay, "a homosexual is one whose definition is to be left to others, one who is denied the act of self-definition with respect to his or her sexuality, one whose self-denial is a prerequisite for military service."
To religious conservatives, allowing gay people to say who they are is a dire threat to society and the military. This week, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association argued that without "don't ask, don't tell" in place, the U.S. military won't be able to come to the rescue to all the other sissy armies: "We will no longer be able to bail out these other emasculated armies because ours will now be feminized and neutered beyond repair." Similarly, Daniel Blomberg from the Alliance Defense Fund warned that the legislation put the religious freedom of troops and military chaplains who disapprove of homosexuality in "unprecedented jeopardy." Blomberg argues that even if accusations of harassment or discrimination are dismissed (or not pursued in the first place) military members may still "avoid religious teachings on sexual ethics to avoid being branded as a 'troublemaker' or seen as 'not a team player.'"
Refuting these statements is easy. Not only have two studies from the Department of Defense -- the first a 1993 RAND Corporation study the DoD paid $1.3 million for -- concluded that allowing openly gay soldiers to serve will have no appreciable effect on military readiness, existing military regulations already protect chaplains from performing duties that go against their faith, and as with issues like abortion, chaplains are permitted to speak their conscience without retribution. The troops, too, are as free as ever to hold and express anti-gay views.
But that's not what the fuss is really about. What conservatives really fear aren't institutional restrictions on religious liberty or laws targeting hate speech, but rather anti-gay views becoming socially unacceptable. That they see this as a form of persecution is a testament to the cultural privilege they've enjoyed for so long; only someone who has not had their views subject to much scrutiny can be so deluded as to imagine that "religious freedom" entails freedom from criticism. And juxtaposed against the courage it's taken for gay people to come out of the closet -- even when faced with the very real threat of violence, loss of employment, and social isolation -- this view seems pretty cowardly.
When the president signs the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" today, it will strip anti-gay prejudice of the state's imprimatur, allowing culture to happen where it usually does -- in the everyday interactions between people who are very different, sometimes radically so, but still call themselves Americans. Allowing service members to know their gay colleagues is so threatening to religious conservatives because, as studies have shown, actually knowing a gay person is the best predictor of how one views homosexuality. Once service members can utter the words "I am gay" without an official state sanction, the culture-war battle has largely been won.