The Battle Over Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The one-year mark is about the time when partisans can reasonably begin expressing their disappointment with the president they elected, and anyone who spends time talking to progressives knows that their frustration has grown in recent weeks. So it was a welcome relief to liberals when President Barack Obama recommitted to a major campaign promise in his State of the Union address: He was finally moving to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy, under which thousands of qualified service members have been kicked out of the military.

If this effort succeeds in ending a rather shameful chapter in our history, it will be because of the shift in public opinion since the policy was instituted in 1993. Much of the credit for that belief shift goes to conservatives themselves. As the debate over gay rights became increasingly dominated by the marriage issue, conservatives retreated so completely to the bunker of "preserving traditional marriage" that they ceded the ground on which their arguments for keeping gays out of the military rested.

But before we get to that, let's look at DADT's effects. Though it was originally supposed to be a compromise that would allow gay Americans to serve, in practice it has done nothing to make gay service members' lives any easier; they still have to hide who they are and face expulsion if discovered. It has also resulted in the loss of thousands of talented individuals who could have added to the nation's security and the military's efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and combating terrorism. One of the more perverse results was that while expulsions had been decreasing for a decade, once DADT was put in place, they actually rose. It was only after September 11 that expulsions declined -- a badly stretched military suddenly had more important things to worry about than rooting out the gays in its midst. Nevertheless, since the policy was put in place, over 13,000 men and women have been kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation, including 634 in 2008, as you can see in this chart created with data from this Congressional Research Service report.


The public was closely divided in 1993 on DADT, but polls now show between two-thirds and three-quarters of the public supporting an end to the ban. In an ABC/Washington Post poll, for instance, the percentage of respondents supporting gay people serving in the military went from 44 percent in 1993 to 75 percent in 2008. Gallup reported last year that "weekly churchgoers (60%), conservatives (58%), and Republicans (58%) now favor" allowing gay men and women to serve.

Many things happened in the interim. More and more gay people came out, meaning more and more Americans know an openly gay person. Many units within the military adopted their own on-the-ground versions of DADT, wherein one of their members was gay, everyone knew it, and no one made an issue of it. People realized that 25 other nations allow gays to serve, including such allies as Israel, Germany, and the U.K., and these countries have had no serious problems with their policies.

After a long period of relative inattention, this issue will now return to the center of public debate. But when supporters of the military ban start arguing for keeping DADT, they'll find that the real problem they have is what they've been saying about marriage. Finding that naked bigotry was no longer acceptable, conservatives have spent the last few years arguing that while they're perfectly happy to allow gays civil rights, they just want to "preserve the sanctity of marriage." In the trial over Proposition 8 now going on in California, the defense has labored mightily -- if unconvincingly -- to claim that its position wasn't motivated by animus toward gay people. Though there is a particular legal purpose to this argument (if the plaintiffs can prove that the proposition had a discriminatory intent, it makes it much easier to win their case), it mirrors the arguments that opponents of marriage equality have been making in public for some time.

As the marriage debate has gone on, only the fringe elements of the conservative movement have continued to make explicit appeals to anti-gay bigotry. More mainstream conservatives have portrayed themselves as respectful proponents of civil rights, insisting that whatever they might have felt in years past, they now oppose discrimination in areas like housing and employment. Many conservatives now back some version of civil unions to allow people things like hospital visitation rights.

In their effort to appear reasonable and tolerant, mainstream conservatives have agreed that it is not acceptable to hate or fear anyone because of their sexual orientation. Once you've agreed that anti-gay feeling is illegitimate, you can't turn around and argue that gays should be kept out of the military for no reason other than anti-gay feeling. And anti-gay feeling has always been the heart of the argument supporting DADT. No one has been able to claim that gay service members don't do their jobs well. What they've always said is that allowing gays to serve openly will make straight service members uncomfortable. The threat to "unit cohesion" comes not from the gay soldier but from the straight soldier who doesn't like having to serve alongside the gay soldier. Conservatives defending DADT have no choice but to defend bigotry -- something they've now conceded is indefensible.

This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the issue, and according to The New York Times, "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been in close discussions with Mr. Obama on the issue [before the State of the Union] and would present the Pentagon's initial plans for carrying out the new policy." As refreshing as it is that the administration is finally tackling this issue, it's likely to proceed slowly and cautiously. Since DADT was enacted via legislation, it will have to be undone via legislation. The most likely outcome is that repeal will be attached to a defense appropriations bill.

In the meantime, Obama can issue an executive order suspending all expulsions under DADT until the process is complete. Given the state of popular opinion on this issue and the public's concern for things like the economy and health care, the bleating of angry culture warriors is likely to be insufficient to derail the effort to get rid of this policy once and for all. But until it's officially wiped from the books, no soldier, sailor, pilot, or Marine should have his or her career destroyed because of a bigotry that we ought to have put behind us long ago -- and that even conservatives no longer defend.

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