Earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of The Washington Post on Monday, misquoted Peter Sprigg, a fellow at the Family Research Council. Sprigg said allowing gays to marry would "change the definition of what marriage is." He was initially misquoted as saying allowing gays to marry would "change the difference of what marriage is." This version has been corrected.
For gay rights, is repeal of 'don't ask' military ban the end or the beginning?
Monday, December 20, 2010; 7:45 AM
For the American gay rights movement, this is the big question that follows Saturday's landmark repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Is the Senate vote the successful end of one struggle or a turning point for many others?
Activists are hoping that the repeal - which will allow gays to serve openly in the U.S. military - gives them significant new leverage. For the first time they can argue that if the Army trusts gay men and women with rifles, why shouldn't society trust them with wedding rings?
But some analysts say that while the vote was a sign of growing public support for gay and lesbian causes, it also illustrates the narrowness of that transformation.
The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," they say, was a near-perfect issue for gay activists. Its standard-bearers were proven patriots, and they were asking only for the government to be indifferent to their sexual orientations, not to certify them. The movement's upcoming fights, centered on gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws, will be on more difficult ground.
"I understand why gay activists are celebrating the end of the military ban," said George Chauncey, a professor who studies gay and lesbian history at Yale University. "But let's note that it took 17 years to overcome 'don't ask, don't tell,' " despite the fact that a majority of Americans have supported repeal for some time.
"That's not a sign of gay political power but of continuing gay political weakness," Chauncey said.
The tone changes
On Saturday, the Senate voted 65 to 31 to approve a bill repealing the policy. Since the bill had already been approved by the House, it now goes to President Obama for his signature - allowing him to deliver on an explicit campaign promise to gay supporters.
The day was a milestone not just for the vote but for the tone of its debate. When President Bill Clinton proposed allowing gays to serve openly in 1993, some congressional opponents raised fears that gay service members would be unwelcome oglers, or even sexual predators.
"Your lifestyle is not normal," Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) told a pair of soon-to-be-discharged gay servicemen during a public hearing at Norfolk Naval Base in May 1993, according to news reports. The audience, made up of 1,000 sailors and Marines, applauded.
Since then, public opinion has shifted sharply. In May 1993, just 44 percent of Americans believed gays who disclosed their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military. This year, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 77 percent now think so.
Part of that shift, analysts said, was a campaign by rights groups to highlight the dismissals of gays. That helped shift the public debate, previously focused on potential harm to military morale, to the actual harm being done to patriotic gay service members.