Ask a schoolchild about the civil-rights movement, and he'll tell you that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, then Martin Luther King Jr. gave the "I Have a Dream" speech, then some laws were passed, and now everyone's equal. The truth, of course, is that things moved much slower than that. Ten years passed between the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ordering the desegregation of schools, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, for instance. And if legal changes are slow, changes in beliefs and attitudes can be glacial in their progress.
It's been 17 years since Bill Clinton tried unsuccessfully to remove the ban on gay Americans serving in the armed forces, which resulted in the disastrous policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT). Last week saw the latest development in this ongoing saga: On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the defense authorization bill, which would repeal the ban, and a few hours later, the full House approved the same amendment. While there's still some shouting to come -- some of which will be ugly -- this issue is on its way to being resolved.
Last week's moves don't end the process, however. Even if (or when) the bill passes both houses, the change won't take effect until the end of the year, when the Pentagon's review of the policy is complete. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it in a video address to the troops, the legislation would only take effect "after, I repeat, after the ongoing Department of Defense high-level review is completed and only after the president, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and I all can certify that we are ready to make this change without hurting unit cohesion, military readiness, military effectiveness, and recruiting and retention."
In other words, it's still up to the military. Nevertheless, since DADT is not just a policy but a law, it has to be undone by legislation. Many people assumed that change would come after the Pentagon completed the review; this development merely puts the legislative change in place for when the time comes. But it does make the repeal seem more and more like a fait accompli. Given the possibility that Republicans could gain control of the House in November's elections, it's an awfully good idea to get the legislation out of the way while Democrats still can.
Republicans, you will not be surprised to learn, are maintaining their support of the ban -- not unanimously, but almost. In the Senate committee, one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, voted with the Democrats. And in the House, four Republicans crossed the aisle to vote for repeal (while 26 Democrats, most from the South, voted against).
Yet outside Congress, support of the ban is looking increasingly unhinged -- and the most vociferous opposition comes not from within the military but from outside it. The Family Research Council released a report making the novel claim that if gays were allowed to serve openly, the result would be an epidemic of straight soldiers being fellated in their sleep against their will by their gay comrades.
Not to be outdone, Bryan Fischer, a top official with the American Family Association, took to the radio to explain why allowing gays in the military is such a bad idea. "Hitler recruited around him homosexuals to make up his Stormtroopers; they were his enforcers, they were his thugs," Fischer said. "And Hitler discovered that he could not get straight soldiers to be savage and brutal and vicious enough to carry out his orders but that homosexual solders basically had no limits and the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict on whomever Hitler sent them after."
If nothing else, this represents a new kind of anti-gay rhetoric. The gay man is no longer effeminate and weak but is now a kind of super-predator, sexually subjugating the straights around him and wreaking not just moral havoc but actual physical destruction and violence. The folks at the Family Research Council and the American Family Association (find an organization with the word "family" in its name, and it's a good bet its staff spends much of their time thinking about gay sex) have gone from arguing that we should feel disgust toward gay people to arguing that we should feel fear at their power over us.
It shouldn't be surprising that these arguments become more shrill as the ban's supporters become more isolated. The latest poll on the subject, from CNN, found 78 percent of Americans say the ban should be repealed. Other recent polls have found similar numbers: 70 percent in a Gallup poll earlier this month; 75 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News poll in February. What was once a divisive question has now become about as close to a matter of consensus as we get in American politics these days.
Which is the biggest reason that the ban will soon be passing into history. Chances are that in December, the Pentagon's report will state that DADT can be eliminated with an amount of disruption that is real but manageable. Opponents, on the other hand, will claim that getting rid of the ban will just be too much for service members to handle.
Some of the troops may indeed find it troubling -- just as many white soldiers found it troubling to have to serve alongside black soldiers after Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. But we ask members of the military to do a lot of difficult things like dodge roadside bombs, get shot at by snipers, and win the support of hostile local populations. You don’t often hear them say, "That order might be a bit complicated to carry out, so we shouldn’t do it." Something tells me they'll be able to handle serving alongside some gay comrades.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a point he often makes while discussing DADT. The military, he says, spends a lot of time talking about integrity. It works to cultivate integrity in its personnel. It has policies that punish breaches of integrity when they are discovered. But then it turns around and tells the thousands of gay service members currently serving, and those who might serve in the future, that in order to serve they have to lie.
It's a powerful argument, and one that most Americans have come to accept. There are still some hoops that have to be jumped through before DADT disappears, and no one thinks that gay troops won't still suffer some discrimination. Civil-rights progress is always slow. But it increasingly looks like this one battle will soon be behind us.