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Democrats weren’t the only ones to suffer a stinging defeat last week. Two years ago the demise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) — the military’s ban on openly gay service members — appeared certain. But gay rights won’t be at the top of Republican Speaker John Boehner’s agenda come January.
That means proponents of repealing DADT need the Senate to act in its upcoming lame duck session. And that’s far from certain because DADT will need to compete with other Democratic priorities in the typical eleventh hour triage of remaining agenda items.
To keep the pressure on Democrats to act, proponents of repealing the discriminatory policy should consult their history books for a compelling and time tested rationale for expanding minority rights. Repeal of DADT needs to be couched as a practical and moral wartime necessity. Practical, because DADT deprives our military of needed personnel. Moral, because service to one’s country demands acknowledgment, respect, and — if history is any guide — a reassessment of minority rights.
When a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania, drawing the U.S. into World War I, the “men only” signs at polling stations soon went down with the ship. Feminists had long been agitating for suffrage rights, but three attempts at constitutional amendments had failed badly. Then women contributed to the war effort by entering the workforce en masse. As President Woodrow Wilson said, “We have made partners of the women in this war… [It] could not have been fought… if it had not been for the services of women.” In this new context, the Nineteenth Amendment sailed through, providing women the franchise.
America’s next few international conflicts had similar effects for groups facing discrimination. Manpower shortages in World War II and Korea necessitated placing African Americans — then thought unreliable and likely to flee — in combat roles.
Fighting and dying with honor on the front lines raised new moral considerations that factored heavily in changes back home. The Army was fully integrated, and in the Jim Crow South, federal legislation abolished the poll tax while the Supreme Court struck down the all-white primary.
Vietnam yielded another constitutional amendment. 18-20 year old kids who’d long been eligible to die for their commander-in-chief became eligible to vote him out of office.
DADT is well situated to become the next casualty of war. As former Marine Eric Alva, the first U.S. service member to be wounded in Iraq and who later came out as gay, told me, Iraq and Afghanistan “allowed an opening.”
Like the manpower shortages in World War II and Korea, part of the consideration is practical. Since September 11, DADT has led to the dismissal of dozens of desperately needed Arabic translators along with hundreds of other soldiers possessing similar critical abilities.
A retired Marine infantry commander said:
for a guy who’s been in that seat and had to enforce that policy, it’s a black and white issue: If the rule exists that makes it a violation of the uniform code of military justice to come out, then for me as an officer, the policy has to be enforced. But personally, from the perspective that we’re at war, this is ridiculous because you’re now denying yourself critical personnel and skills. For a military person, it’s a crying shame that talented linguists, for instance, are getting kicked out.
But the moral consideration is just as important. Regardless of DADT, plenty of gays are currently serving in the military. According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, the armed forces contain over 65,000 gay service members, or about 2% of all personnel. Needless to say, these gay soldiers aren’t exempt from being shot by snipers or blown up by roadside bombs.
In the years since Alva lost a leg to a landmine while on patrol in Basra, he’s found that his sacrifice forced many to take a second look at DADT.
They say, “he’s made that sacrifice and we should reward him.” What people started noticing is that men and women are getting injured and losing arms and legs. For us to then turn away a veteran who has served the country — to not say your service is honorable — is a disgrace.
The broader implication is that service to one’s country demands acknowledgment, respect, and — with remarkable frequency — a reconsideration of minority rights. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed Alva — like those subjected to discrimination in past generations — to play a compelling moral trump card: “Look me in the face and tell me you can’t thank me for my service.” Facing a frantic lame duck session, proponents of repealing DADT need to exploit this time-tested rationale for expanding minority rights before this golden opportunity slips away.