The Defense Department has announced a plan to end discrimination against gay American service members. On the heels of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union pledge to repeal former President Bill Clinton’s policy of requiring gays to stay in the closet while on active duty, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and among Obama’s top military advisers, expressed their support for banning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.
“The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it,” said Gates, at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. “We believe that we have a degree of latitude within the existing law to change our internal procedures in a manner that is more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform.”
While it might take years for the change in policy, which must pass Congress, to take effect, the move—one of few anti-Clintonian political moves that the president has taken in the last month—surprised many who viewed the military as the last bastion of cultural, as well as national security, conservatism. Some Republican senators on the committee voiced that viewpoint clearly: Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia argued that homosexuals are a threat to military standards of “morale and discipline.” Nevertheless, Admiral Mullen emerged as a strong advocate for the cause of equality. “I have served with homosexuals since 1968,” he told the committee. “It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”
The news was greeted with overwhelming support from civil rights organizations. Human Rights Campaign, which has long opposed the current policy, said “today is a historic step forward in repealing a shameful law that has harmed the military, discharged thousands of talented and patriotic Americans and prevented thousands more from serving their country.” They were eager to give Obama the credit: “Make no mistake—this would not have happened without his insistence,” they said in a released statement.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina likewise praised the advancement: “The men and women who wear the uniform of this great nation should be entitled to all the rights they so heroically defend,” he said, also adding that our overstretched military can’t afford to turn away any qualified fighters. (About 10,900 troops have been fired under the current policy). Under the terms of the proposed Defense Department change, gay Americans like Anthony Woods, an African-American Iraq War veteran and budding politician who left the military rather than conceal his sexual orientation, will be able to remain in service.
This Black History Month, all Americans are expected to celebrate the advances of civil rights pioneers like the Greensboro Four, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and the many heroes who paved the way for the protections and freedoms now enjoyed by blacks, other ethnic minorities, women and the disabled. But the level of solidarity that black Americans feel with gay Americans is still debatable. In the wake of California’s passage of Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, many suggested that African Americans, who are as a whole more religious and, on social issues, often more conservative than other voting blocs in America, were a dependable block in opposing gay marriage.
But the election of a lesbian mayor in Houston with strong black support and new laws regarding gay marriage passed by Washington, D.C.’s predominantly black city council suggest that black America’s position on the “Don’t Ask” announcement is not clear cut.
Despite the ambiguity, the avowedly anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has laid its bets on where blacks fall on the spectrum of equality. NOM has circulated a petition asking for support of a bill currently backed by nine archconservative senators including Sam Brownback, Pat Roberts and David Vitter. The bill would put the recently legalized gay marriage up for a vote in majority-black Washington, D.C. Certainly, NOM thinks it will win the argument. Does black America?
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.