The military's next step after 'don't ask, don't tell': Equal rights for gay service members

After the House voted to repeal the policy, the Senate took on the issue and also voted to lift the 17-year-old ban on gays in the military.
By Chris Patti
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 8:00 PM

With a swoop of his pen last week, President Obama wiped away more than a century of discrimination that had culminated in a 17-year struggle for the rights of gay men and lesbians serving in the U.S. armed forces. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will now try to fashion a policy that will filter down to all of us in the services. That policy needs to set a standard for the ethical and equitable treatment of all service members, regardless of their sexuality.

Despite all of the controversy, repealing "don't ask, don't tell" was the easy part. Politics aside, it takes no courage to simply right a wrong. The president and members of Congress have been congratulating themselves for doing the right thing. But minds should be turning to the difficult questions that remain. These are the same questions that vex our society when it comes to equal rights for homosexuals. They cross over into the "gray areas" where some start to feel uncomfortable and where the legal options are ambiguous.

It is, for example, one thing to hand a gay junior sailor a paintbrush and point him toward a rusty bulkhead. But can that gay sailor, if he has a partner, collect the same housing allowance his married counterparts do? Can a lesbian sailor request to be stationed where her partner is? Will the military recognize a marriage between two service members that is legal in one state but not in another?

The issue of gay marriage provokes deep divisions. I hope that my brothers and sisters in the armed forces can help the Defense Department set standards for the rights of gay men and lesbians that far outpace the conflicted sentiment and resulting legal tangle in our society. This is an opportunity to show all Americans that homosexuals deserve equal treatment under the law. This applies not just in some cases or with limitations but to the full rights all Americans should share when it comes to legal matters such as marriage, salary and tax benefits.

It is incumbent on the military to not only pave a fair and equitable way forward for all service members but also to lead by example and provide our country with a template. The Sailor's Creed, which is recited across the globe every day by everyone serving in the Navy, concludes, "I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all." It is time for those words to ring true for everyone who serves.

Most gay and lesbian service members won't be standing up and announcing their sexual orientation at the next "all-hands" call. They won't get new name tags. They will remain, as they always have been, indistinguishable from their straight counterparts. Instead, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" means that there may be quiet instances of a lesbian sailor telling a shipmate that she is gay, or a gay sailor saying that his plans for the weekend include going on a trip with his partner. Such statements are likely to be met with shrugs, and everyone will go back to getting the mission done. But just because these moments no longer risk automatic discharge does not mean that gay and lesbian service members have equality.

The Pentagon must be clear about treating all members of the U.S. military equally, which means that it must recognize gay marriage as legal and a right of every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine. These rights almost must extend to their spouses, just as they do to the spouses of straight servicemen and women, to include health care, retirement benefits, GI Bill eligibility and commissary privileges.

If the military can create a policy that sets the highest standards for equal treatment for gay men and lesbians, we will have won a battle that is in some ways far more important than any skirmish in Iraq or Afghanistan. Our nation will have once again struck a blow for equality, justice and what is right.

The writer, a chief cryptologic technician interpretive, has served on active duty in the Navy for 20 years.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company