In 1993, President Bill Clinton attempted to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military. It was one of the most contentious efforts of his administration and sparked months of intense debate, the result of which was actually a codifying of the pre-Clinton policy stating that homosexuals are not eligible for military service. The reason it got (mis)labeled "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is because the Clinton administration was able to change the administrative policy of the time of asking on induction forms whether or not an individual was gay. Therefore, even though gay men and women were still forbidden to serve, they could not be asked when they signed up, so if they hid their sexual orientation they could still serve.
On Thursday, the House voted to let the Defense Department repeal the ban on gay and bisexual people from serving in the military. Separately on Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a similar measure allowing the repeal. While the measures passed, the debate continued to be as contentious as in the early 1990's, and largely split along party lines. The supporters of these measures, such as Senator Joseph Lieberman who sponsored the repeal measure, said the ban did not "reflect the best values of our country." On the other side was Rep. Louie Gohmert who expressed fears that everyone in the military would now "have to be overt" about their sexuality, "whether it's in a bunker where they're confined under fire" or other circumstances.
Rep. Gohmert's statements, however, seem to reflect a great deal of the confusion and unfounded fears about what a repeal of the ban might be. First of all, the proposal making its way through Congress would delay implementation until after the Pentagon weighs-in later this year. But more importantly, the bill does not require anyone to speak about their sexual orientation to anyone else, nor does it propose that anyone, heterosexual or homosexual, would be allowed or encouraged to act in an overt sexual way under inappropriate circumstances. In fact, military rules and regulations are very specific about sexual conduct. His fears, in fact, and the fears of many others, appear to be based on old stereotypes about gay individuals and what their behavior might be like, rather than what is true.
According to some studies, as many as 66,000 gay men and women may be already serving in the U.S. military, which comes to about 2.2 percent of all personnel, including 13,000 on active duty. If this is true (and it likely is an underestimation), then the fears that lifting the ban would not preserve military morale, discipline, and readiness of combat can be considered grossly unfounded.
In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an Executive Order desegregating the military on basis of race. At the time, his directive had to overcome stiff institutional resistance, deeply entrenched attitudes, and fears that allowing African Americans to serve with Caucasian Americans would severely compromise the military. Years later, African American military leaders such as Colin Powell (who has recently reversed his position and supported repeal of the ban) have served in the top positions in our military and government with honors. At the time he signed the Order, Truman stated that he felt it was time to honor those African Americans who were already providing great service to the United States and give them the status and rewards they deserved, the same as their Caucasian counterparts.
No doubt, there remains resistance to lifting the ban on gays in the military. In spite of the endorsement of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairmen Adm. Mike Mullen (who has had a long and decorated military career) and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the chiefs of the military branches have objected and expressed concerns about the potential impact this repeal might have. And while many soldiers have come forward and stated that they received only support from fellow troops when they revealed their sexual orientation, there will doubtlessly be many in the military who are homophobic and will have great difficulty if/when the ban is lifted.
Change is hard, and comes slowly. While surveys indicate that the majority of young people do not oppose gays in the military or gay marriage, the majority of older people still do. And in truth, while we can make an educated guess about how a person's orientation may or may not affect their ability to serve in the military, change of any kind always involves some risk. In change, we don't know the outcome until we try - there are no grantees as much as we wish there were. We make the change anyway based on a belief that while it might be difficult and the road might not be completely smooth it is ultimately the right thing to do. In this case, it may be time to honor those Americans who already serve bravely in our military, and allow for them and others who will serve in the future to do so without prejudice.
photo: Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen support lifting the ban on gays in the military (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File)