By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"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."