It took 17 years from its passage for the courts to recognize that DADT is an unconstitutional infringement of the civil rights of gay people. Obama took heat from advocacy groups for not acting earlier and using his executive power to lift the ban. President Truman integrated the armed forces with an executive order, and Obama’s critics couldn’t understand why he didn’t use the same tool.
They got their answer when eight Republicans joined 55 Democrats and two Independents to repeal DADT, a cross-party, cross-cultural boost in the eyes of the military and the voters. With 65 senators backing repeal, it becomes easier for the Pentagon to implement the new policy knowing it has broad political support.
In terms of social policy, the end of DADT takes its place amidst other historic milestones, notably Truman’s desegregation order and the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v Board of Education to integrate the nation’s public schools. For Obama, repeal of DADT is a campaign promise kept that will help him redeem his liberal bona fides.
Americans like to think we’re on the side of the angels when it comes to protecting individual freedom and civil rights, but history tells us we’re often late to the party.
Other industrialized countries did away with slavery way before we did, and without the bloodshed of a civil war. Britain outlawed the practice in the early 1800s. America lagged behind in granting women the right to vote, and women are still under-represented in elective office at every level.
One of the arguments against ending DADT is based on religion objections. Christian traditionalists think homosexuality is wrong and cite passages in the Bible to back up their belief. America was founded on the basis of religious freedom yet when there is discrimination against gays and lesbians it is often done in the name of religion.
We shouldn’t be surprised that people hide behind religion. Critics of giving women the vote could find theological support for their belief that women should be in a subordinate role. Discriminating against people of color has a long history of justification and rationalization, some religiously based, some just plain ignorant.
Much of the world must look at us with bemusement that we took so long to reach the conclusion that sexual orientation is irrelevant to the ability of men and women to form a fighting force. The greatest armies in the world made peace with differing sexual orientations a long time ago. Israel tops the list with an enviable army that deals with existential threats every day. Sure there will be pockets of resistance in the U.S. military, but Congress has spoken, and the order is coming from the Commander in Chief.
Truman integrated the armed forces at a time of great peril to America, with the Russian army facing us in Europe and the Cold War beginning to heat up. The military rose to the occasion and led the way to the integrated society we take pride in today. In a new century with different social challenges, the military is shouldering a generational transformation in the way gay people are regarded, and Obama, like Truman before him, will get full credit. It will be recorded that the evil of bigotry lost a big battle in 2010.
Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clit are syndicated columnists and special this week to the Sparks Tribune.