The 24-hour news cycle swallows the important and unimportant events of yesterday in favor of the newest headlines, newsworthy or not. Unless we stop a moment to reflect, momentous accomplishments might disappear. One of the final political acts of 2010 was a milestone in the continuing civil rights struggle: Congress declared that the US military would no longer discriminate against homosexuality. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally became “Don’t Discriminate”.
A long history of legal persecution of homosexuals by the US government has come to an end. Alongside the red scare of the postwar decades, which used exaggerated fears of domestic communism to attack labor unions and civil rights advocates, the so-called “lavender scare” attacked Americans suspected of homosexual behavior. It is possible that as many suspected gays lost jobs as suspected Communists.
The popular movement to give gay Americans equal rights began in the late 1960s, inspired by the demands of the movements on behalf of African Americans and women -- treat us equally as Americans. As in the case of African Americans, the US government used military arguments to justify its own discrimination. Arnold Rampersad’s splendid biography of Jackie Robinson explains how Robinson and other blacks were prevented from playing baseball in the Army during World War II. In the immediate postwar years, major league baseball gradually dismantled its racial barriers and President Truman officially integrated the armed forces, well before a broad popular movement developed to demand racial equality. I believe that the example of the military, and the fact that many whites met blacks as equals for the first time in the service, gradually changed popular opinion about race in America, leading to the broad popularity of the civil rights movement.
For homosexuals, that process was reversed. During decades of political activism, many communities across America passed laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexuality. But the government persisted in its claim that homophobia was justifiable military policy. If our soldiers are heroes, a gay person could not qualify.
The key to repeal was an enormous survey, one of the largest surveys in military history, covering over 115,000 responses from members of our armed forces. The central question was, would repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” affect how “members in your immediate unit work together to get the job done?” 18% said the effects would be all positive, 32% said there would equal positive and negative effects, 20% said there would be no effect, and 30% said there would be negative effects. With less than one-third saying that repeal would have an overall negative effect, the members of our armed forces themselves decreed the end of discrimination.
Part of that survey which has received less attention is the response of tens of thousands of military spouses, mostly women, to questions about social relationships with gay people. Asked about the possibility that a gay military couple lived in their neighborhood on the base, 63% of respondents answered, “I would get to know them like any other neighbor,” 13% answered, “I would do nothing,” and 13% answered, “I would generally avoid them when I could.” That question gets to the heart of the issue. It is not about military readiness, but simply about social attitudes. Those who would avoid homosexuals because they are homosexuals represent only 13% of military spouses. Homophobia is not dead, but it is no longer the will of the American public.
The long civil rights movement is not over. Its cause, the persistence of discrimination in American life, stubbornly remains, still proclaiming the tired slogans of biological superiority and moral exclusivity. But our society in its wisdom keeps moving towards equality. Another significant recent step forward was the so-called Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows women to sue employers who violate the laws about equal pay for equal work, based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This legislation gives women redress against employers who persist in paying them less than men; it was the first legislative act of Obama’s Presidency.
Conservatives opposed both of these efforts to end discrimination. Nearly every Republican in the House and Senate voted against both the Lily Ledbetter Act and against repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Our own Congressman, Aaron Schock, voted against both of these efforts to make American society more equal.
Ending discrimination will not be achieved through a new military policy nor by new laws. Such political acts reflect an evolving popular understanding that America can prosper by defending equality. New policies can also encourage that understanding, by demonstrating that whites and blacks, men and women, straights and gays can do the nation’s work together. Part of that work is ensuring that the nation lives up to its high ideals.