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Open the Military Closet

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Back during the initial fuss about "don't ask, don't tell," I went over to the Pentagon to see the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We mostly discussed the situation in the Balkans and the pressure on President Bill Clinton to militarily intervene. Then I asked about gays in the military and the chairman, who was opposed, asked me what I thought the reaction would be if two male soldiers took to the dance floor at some military base. No different, I answered, than if a black man danced with a white woman at the same base about 50 years earlier. Colin Powell seemed taken aback and I thought, naively, that "don't ask don't tell" was doomed.

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Now it is 16 years later and "don't ask, don't tell" is still the law of the land. Since 1993, more than 13,000 troops have been discharged for being gay. Last year, 619 military personnel got the boot, a number that has held more or less constant in recent years. Some of them had invaluable specialties, such as fluency in Arabic.

In the view of many present and former military officers, changing the policy to allow openly gay people to serve would prove a disaster. In a letter to President Obama, more than 1,000 of them argued that valuable officers and noncoms would leave the services if gays were tolerated, while concerned parents would withhold permission for their sons or daughters to enlist if, God forbid, homosexuals were openly in the ranks. This is nonsense.

American society has changed radically in the past two decades. It would now be ludicrous for members of Congress to rush down to military bases to gauge the distance between bunks -- as was once done. Gays have taken their place in society without much fuss. They are everywhere -- tolerated or welcomed, ignored or celebrated, but rare is the workplace that does not have people who are openly gay. This is a refreshing development.

Some African Americans recoil from the notion that homosexuality is a civil right. After all, nowhere were there rules and regulations -- backed often by violence -- that treated gays as whites did blacks. What's more, in the (wrong) thinking of some, homosexuality is a choice made for whatever reason, while being black is a matter of birth. The facts, though, are otherwise. Homosexuality is also a matter of birth. It is who they are -- and who they have every right to be.

The admirals and generals who oppose repealing "don't ask, don't tell" are out of touch with American society. They live in a cloistered world that has not changed while much of America has. What's more, they ignore or dismiss the lesson of other countries. Britain, Denmark and Israel, among other nations, allow openly gay men to serve in their armed forces. You can dismiss Britain and Denmark if you want to, but Israel is a different matter. Its army does not play games.

History speaks volumes here. It was much harder to integrate blacks into the armed forces than it will ever be to have gays come out of the military closet. Of course, there will be resistance to changing "don't ask, don't tell." So what? It's the right thing to do and the military, of all institutions, knows how to enforce discipline. Will there be incidents? You bet. Will a gay man hit on one who is not? Again, you bet. But does this happen all the time with heterosexual women and heterosexual men? Of course. Come-ons are part of life. Same sex or opposite sex, they are not fatal.

Barack Obama is pretty much a perfect package -- smart, articulate, handsome, charming. The only thing he lacks is a bottom line: What, precisely, does he find unacceptable? It's hard to know. His political career has been so brief we don't yet know where he makes his stand -- this far and no further.

It ought to be "don't ask, don't tell." It will cost him -- but not all that much. The fuss will be great and right-wing talk show hosts will make fools of themselves over this issue, but the consequences will be minor. Whatever the cost, though, the cause is right. "Don't ask, don't tell" is a law that recognizes and enforces bigotry and ignorance. Obama ought to trash it, pronto.

cohenr@washpost.com



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