Will the Next President Lift the Ban on Gays in the Military?

This presidential campaign has seen plenty of platitudes on matters of national security but precious little real discussion about what America's armed forces will look like in the years to come. There are extraordinary challenges ahead, not the least of which is rebuilding a military utterly spent by the war in Iraq. As for the people who would be commander in chief, we know that all the remaining candidates want to defeat terrorism and keep America strong. In other words, we don't know much at all.

There are many facets to the issue of our military's future, but for the moment I want to discuss just one: whether the ban on gays serving in the military will finally be repealed. Of the 26 countries in the NATO alliance, only Portugal, Greece, Turkey—and the United States—ban gays from serving in the military. Other countries have reported no problems integrating gay service members into their military. This is true even in Israel, where they take military matters very, very seriously.

When he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton pledged to repeal the ban, perhaps not realizing how much opposition it would engender from both inside and outside the military. When he tried to make good on his promise, a firestorm erupted, one of the most remarkable elements of which was the fact that all over the media senior active-duty personnel were quoted as opposing the policy decision their commander in chief was considering. (Historical fun fact: One of the most prominent advocates of repealing the ban and letting gays serve openly was conservative hero Barry Goldwater.)

The resolution the administration came up with was "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which is a deceptive moniker for what was an extremely minor shift. The only "not asking" that took place was that recruits would no longer be forced to attest to their red-blooded heterosexuality before they joined the service. The rest of the policy remained largely unchanged: You could still be kicked out of the military for any "homosexual conduct," which is not limited to sex but includes letting other people know you're gay.

The result was unsurprising: Gay soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines felt no less required to hide their identity, and nearly every day someone was being kicked out of the military because of their sexuality.

But then something interesting happened: The exigencies of war made booting gays out of the military a little less appealing. Discharges under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" peaked at 1,227 in 2001 and have since declined rapidly, numbering only 612 in 2006. That's still plenty, of course. But there are also plenty of gay service members whose sexuality is known to their units, and whose commanding officers have decided that they're going to pretend they don't know in order to avoid losing a valuable member of their team.

John McCain, you will be shocked to learn, thinks that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" should remain in place, while both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said they'll move to repeal the ban if they become president. If a Democrat is elected in the fall, he or she will have one advantage Bill Clinton didn't in moving to repeal the ban: the support of a clear majority of the American people. In 1993 the public was closely split on the issue, with supporters of the ban usually outnumbering opponents by a small margin. But today, between 60 percent and 65 percent of people tell surveyors that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military (see for example Gallup or Pew).

What happened? America became a different country in the last 15 years. In 1992, 42 percent of Americans told a CBS News/New York Times poll that they personally knew a gay person. In 2004, a Los Angeles Times poll asked a similar question and found that the number was 69 percent. Was there some sort of explosion of gayness in the interim? Extraordinarily successful efforts on the part of the Gay Recruitment Agency? Of course not. What occurred was a cultural shift: rising visibility for gays in popular culture gave more and more individuals the license and courage to come out to their friends, families, and co-workers.

So the general public might be supportive of repealing the ban, but what about members of the military themselves? The evidence is spotty, but it suggests that resistance to removing the ban is more likely to be found in the military's upper ranks, whose members are older. For instance, the quadrennial National Annenberg Election Survey found a stark split in their 2004 survey: While a majority of officers and their families opposed allowing gays to serve, a majority of enlisted personnel supported lifting the ban. The direction in which opinion within the military might be headed was suggested by another finding: "On another issue that had once divided the armed forces, the military sample resoundingly approved the work of women in the service. Seventy-four percent said they performed as well as the men they served with, 10 percent said they did worse than men, and 7 percent said they did better than men."

But even at the top, opinions are beginning to change. Last January, Gen. John Shalikashvili, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, wrote in The New York Times, "Last year I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq. … These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers. … I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces."

When you ask proponents of the ban why it should remain in place, they almost never say that gay service members aren't capable of doing their jobs. Instead, they argue that the reason we can't let gay people serve is because of straight people. Being around their gay comrades would make them feel all, you know, funny. The result would be an inevitable decline in "unit cohesion."

Of course, "unit cohesion" can be harmed by any number of things—for instance, if one of the unit's members is a jerk. But the unit cohesion argument is an updated form of the same claim that was made before Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. White soldiers just wouldn't tolerate blacks working, eating, and sleeping next to them, it was said. And the public, too, wanted to keep the races separate: A 1948 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of the public was against the idea of desegregating the army.

Today, our reaction to those poll numbers is to say, too bad. The moral wrong of segregation was not mitigated by the fact that undoing that wrong would make many people uncomfortable. The identical logic applies to the ban on gay people serving in the military: It is simply wrong to ban a certain class of Americans from serving in the military when their membership in that class does nothing to affect their performance. The fact that some other members of the military don't like them being there makes no difference. There are probably some anti-Semites in the military, too, but we don't prohibit Jews from serving because of it.

What history will say about the public figures of our time depends on what they do when confronted by moral questions like this one. Did they take the position history judged to be the right one? And did they have the courage to walk to the side of justice when there were political costs? The record of the Democratic Party on issues of gay rights has been tepid and timid, staying a step or two behind public opinion as it evolves in a steadily progressive direction. But at least on this question, the Democrats who would be president have arrived in the right spot. It may not have been discussed much in this campaign, but the ban will be repealed, if not in the next presidential term then not long thereafter. When it does happen, there will be another fight—perhaps not as bitter and laced with open bigotry as the last—but a fight nonetheless. And history will note where every politician stood.

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