Correction to This Article
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.
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For gay rights, is repeal of 'don't ask' military ban the end or the beginning?

In a landmark for gay rights, the Senate on Saturday voted to let gays serve openly in the military, giving President Barack Obama the chance to fulfill a campaign promise and repeal the 17-year policy known as "don't ask, don't tell." (Dec. 18)

"A lot of the basis of the debate today was, 'Look, there are gay people serving in the military, and we're making their lives miserable,' " said Patrick Egan, a professor of politics at New York University who has studied the shifts in public opinion on this issue. "In '93 . . . it was like a totally new idea that there might be gays or lesbians in the military."

On Saturday, senators opposing the repeal raised objections to the timing of the change, worrying about the impact on small military units during a time of two wars. A recent Pentagon review found that ending the ban would pose only a "low risk" of disruption in the military, but senators including John McCain (R-Ariz.) said they were concerned about differing views from the Marine Corps commandant and rank-and-file soldiers.

What they did not say was that there was something wrong with gay service members.

"This has nothing to do with the valiant service that gays and lesbians have provided to the United States of America. That is a given. We all agree with that," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), another opponent of the repeal. But, Chambliss said, "in the middle of a military conflict is not the time to repeal a policy that is working."

The victory highlighted just how far American gay rights groups have come - 41 years ago, when a police raid set off the famous "Stonewall Riots" in New York, being openly gay could mean social marginalization and official persecution. The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" opened up one of the last spheres of American life that was still legally off-limits.

Government-sanctioned gay marriages or civil unions were hardly imaginable when the movement began; now they are allowed in six states and the District of Columbia. The success and broadening of the gay rights movement has been successful enough that it has begun to splinter, dividing into divergent groups that place themselves on both the left and right of the political spectrum.

At the same time, the right to marry - an important cause to many of these groups - has more commonly been denied. Thirty states have amended their constitutions to bar same-sex marriage. In 2008, California voters struck down gay-marriage statutes already on the books, and the same happened the next year in Maine. In November, Iowa voters ousted three state Supreme Court judges who had ruled in favor of gay unions.

The marriage fight

The conservative Family Research Council opposes gay marriage, senior fellow Peter Sprigg said, because "it ceases to send the crucial social message that [marriage] sends now, which is that opposite-sex sexual relationships are important, they are unique."

Sprigg said his group believes that the public still sees these debates in a different light than it views the question of repealing "don't ask, don't tell."

The repeal debate, he said, seemed to be about giving gay people a right that everyone else has. But Sprigg said the question of gay marriage asks voters to take a bigger leap.

"Allowing a homosexual to serve in the military does not change the definition of what a soldier is, or what the military is," Sprigg said. But, he said, allowing gays to marry would "change the definition of what marriage is. To legalize same-sex marriage is to officially affirm and celebrate homosexual relationships. And that's a step that I don't think the American public is ready to make."

The next battle over gay marriage may take place in New Hampshire, where Republicans took control of both houses of the state legislature in November. Conservatives there say they plan to push for a repeal of that state's gay-marriage law.

In Washington, gay rights groups say they will turn now to the "Employment Non-Discrimination Act," which would stop employers from discriminating based on a person's real or perceived sexual identity.

That idea has been kicking around Congress since the 1970s, and few think the new members of the Republican House majority will be the ones to put it over the top. Still, some gay activists say the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal will inevitably lead to more successes in their effort to erase the official barriers to complete parity in society.

"If you can fight and die for your country, there's absolutely no reason why you can't be granted the full set of rights" that others have, including the ability to marry a same-sex partner, said Fred Sainz, a vice president at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. With the military's policy repealed, he said, "Americans will deduce that on their own. We won't have to say a thing."

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