On September 20, 2012, the nation marked the first anniversary of the repeal of the discriminatory “don't ask, don’t tell” policy, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, prohibiting gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the US military.
The anniversary was accompanied by the publication of a scholarly report from the Palm Center, “One Year Out: An Assessment of DADT Repeal’s Impact on Military Readiness .” The study concluded that the repeal of DADT has had no negative impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, recruitment and retention of troops, and overall morale. It also found that there has been no increase in assaults or harassment of LGB service members.
While this is all good news, my reaction to this is simple: “don’t ask, don’t tell” was much ado about nothing. Queer folks everywhere can say, “We told you so.”
And many of us did. During the year before President Obama signed the repeal into law, I had the opportunity to provide testimony on “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Review Working Group , the body charged with figuring out the potential viability and eventual implementation of repeal. I spoke with a subcommittee of the larger working group, one that included at least one lawyer and several military officers. The conversation was respectful, at times amiable, and I was both surprised and impressed with what I perceived to be a genuine effort to dismantle discrimination. Still, after a two-hour interview that covered a wide range of topics—including the military’s hyper-masculine culture, the history of racial desegregation in the military, the roots of anti-LGBT stigma, and the norms of gender and sexuality that shape both perceptions of and behavior towards LGBT people—I was struck by one officer’s final question: “But what about the showers, professor?” In retrospect, my response was impulsive, if not rebellious: “What about the showers, sir?” It seemed that even the best intentions might be derailed by the lingering fear of a queer unit. I had entered the conversation with an open mind; I got off the phone feeling less than optimistic about the prospects for success.
Over the years, my own experiences with straight folks I’ve known from the military—friends and family members, ROTC cadets and veteran officers I teach at Harvard—have been mostly positive, including those with whom I disagree strongly (and often) on matters of war and peace. Nearly to a person, these soldiers have convinced me that they are more committed to doing their job and serving their country than purging homosexuals from their ranks. This has been more or less confirmed by my gay and lesbian military friends, who maintain that the military, as an institution, is far more homophobic than the men and women who comprise it. (As a lapsed Catholic this makes perfect sense to me—after all, there are many good priests and nuns who reject the grotesque impositions of the Church in favor of social justice commitments far more in line with Christ’s teachings on poverty, prejudice and peace.) Anecdotally, then, I maintained a certain optimism that change would come in time.
And change did come. Last year, on the day President Obama signed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I spoke at a rally in Harvard Yard. Here is the text of my remarks:
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Today, we mark a milestone in the long struggle for human rights.
Nearly eighteen years after President Bill Clinton signed “don’t ask, don’t tell” into law, President Barack Obama has signed it out of law. The dismantling of any form of discrimination—especially one as blatant, destructive, and hypocritical as this one—should be cause for celebration. Ten years ago, during the battle over the Living Wage at Harvard, my dear friend and Kennedy School colleague Marshall Ganz , the legendary community organizer, taught me a valuable lesson: it is important, he said, for activists to take stock of our victories, however large or small, so that we can nurture our hope and strengthen our resilience for the coming battles. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is an important victory. And so today we should pause to celebrate.
As a gay American, I am proud of the president—a man I helped to elect, with whom I often disagree, especially on matters of war, but in whom I still have some measure of faith—for making the long overdue repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” a priority of this Administration. I once wrote a piece  in the Huffington Post in which I asked, “Barack Obama: America’s First Gay President?” He’s getting there, folks—slowly but surely.
As a gay member of the Harvard community, I am proud of our president, Drew Gilpin Faust—a distinguished scholar of the Civil War and an enlightened advocate for civil rights—for speaking out boldly, and repeatedly, on behalf of repeal. This is not something she had to do, but she did it, and we should honor that, too.
As a gay activist, I am proud of my fellow comrades in the movement—LGBT and ally alike, both civilian and military—who have worked so tirelessly for so long to make this historic day a reality.
And I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to honor all the LGBT service members who have suffered in silence; who have endured harassment, hatred and physical harm; and also those who have raised their voices to make this hideous policy history. These queer patriots took risks most of us would be hard-pressed to even fathom, and they deserve our salute.
Genuine progress—to say nothing of transformation—requires courage and commitment from many people, and today we celebrate this coalition of will. We are a better country because of them.
But today we celebrate only a partial victory. As important as the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Discrimination against LGBT service members long predates, and will surely outlive, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Sodomy has been grounds for discharge from the military since the American Revolution. Lt. Gotthold Frederick Enslin became the first known casualty of this anti-gay policy in 1778. During World War II, the military added psychiatric screening to its induction process, leading to a new policy of issuing “blue discharges” for those suspected of homosexual activity—so named because they were printed on blue paper. Though the policy of issuing “blue discharges” was discontinued in 1947, President Harry Truman—who signed the execute order to desegregate the Army in 1948—signed the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950, establishing the policies and procedures for military discharges that largely remain in effect today. In fact, Article 125 of that Code still forbids sodomy, and it will likely take an additional act of Congress to revoke this provision.
Indeed, there’s a long history of mistreatment towards and discrimination against LGBT service members, dating back to the birth of the republic and continuing at this very moment. We know that more than 13,000 people have been discharged during the eighteen years this policy has been in place, but it’s impossible to measure just how much service has been denied, how many lives have been destroyed, during the long history of anti-gay discrimination in the military. This is “collateral damage” of a different kind, and it should shame us all. That it may continue only compounds and prolongs the shame.
The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” outlaws some discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual service members, but it falls short in several important ways.
For instance, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” does not include specific nondiscrimination provisions. It’s clear that LGBT service members will no longer be fired for “coming out,” but it is unclear if they will be treated fairly and equally by their peers and superiors in the military.
The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” does not mandate specific mechanisms for holding members of the military accountable if they continue to harass or quietly discriminate against their LGBT peers.
The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” does not include LGBT service members in the Department of Defense Equal Opportunity policies.
The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” does not address whether LGBT service members who are legally married in, say, Massachusetts or Washington, DC, will continue to be second-class citizens when it comes to same-sex partner benefits and federal legal recognition of their union.
The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” does not include specific guarantees for reparations—separation pay, tuition remuneration, employment assistance, coverage for ongoing mental and physical health needs—for LGBT service members who have already been discharged because of their real or perceived sexual orientation.
The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” does not include transgender or intersex individuals, who are still barred from serving because they are categorized as having psychological or physical “disorders.”
And this last item has direct relevance for Harvard. Earlier today, there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony to welcome Navy ROTC back to campus after a forty-year absence. But this celebration—and the invitation of ROTC back to campus—is at best premature. To bar transgender and intersex people from serving their country is to still discriminate against LGBT people. If Harvard is to take its own nondiscrimination policy seriously—if it expects any of us to take it seriously—then we must require that the military tear down the walls of discrimination that remain. I know that not everyone agrees with this position. Some say, “There aren’t that many transgender people, and how many of them, really, want to serve?” But this misses the point entirely. Discrimination is discrimination. And so long as one person’s aspirations are diminished or denied because of who they are or who they love, we will still have a fight to wage. And LGB folks must be on the front lines with our transgender colleagues until all these battles are won. Incomplete justice is still injustice—at Harvard and everywhere else.
Speaking of battles, let me close with a word about war. This is, sad to say, the giant elephant in the room when it comes to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Starting today, many of us here can now enlist in the US Army. But for what? To fight in the endless wars that our country has been waging—illegally, in my opinion—for the last decade? No, thanks.
A week and a half ago, we commemorated the tenth anniversary of 9/11—a day we can’t forget and never want to relive. Ever since that fateful day, America has been a war nation—driven by vengeance, enabled by fear and sustained by silence. Sadly, too many of us have played along as we’ve watched our country sacrifice its soul. As LGBT people, we should be concerned that we’re required to support war, however tacitly, in order to secure our rights. We should also be concerned—very concerned—that too few members of the LGBT community have voiced opposition to these wars while we’ve been busy advocating for our rights. We should also remember that the faculty voted to kick ROTC off Harvard’s campus in 1969 not because of the military’s discrimination against homosexuals but because ROTC was considered a feeder program for the military-industrial complex, then engaged in a similarly unjust war. And as long as we’re being honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that the two most important advances in LGBT rights during the Obama Administration—the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”—have had their origins in military appropriations bills to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I trust that we have not lost our fabulous appreciation of irony, however tragic, in the midst of all this madness.
So on this day, as we celebrate the important victories we’ve achieved, as we mark this historic milestone, let us broaden our vision and raise our voices. And let us rededicate ourselves to the difficult work ahead, not only to ending discrimination against all people but to ensuring a just and lasting peace among all nations on this earth.
Truth be told, one year later, I still have these same concerns, this same critique. Personally, I’ve never quite understood the fierce urgency that surrounds this issue in so many quarters. After all, regardless of whether they are “out” or “in the closet,” gay, lesbian and bisexual service members constitute only a small percentage of the overall military population, and a small minority within the larger LGBT population. Given this reality, I think it’s reasonable to ask why we’ve spent so much effort—more, say, than on recent efforts to pass a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)—to dismantle a policy that effects so few people? Far be it for me to dictate the choices of my fellow country men and women, but I have never been able to understand why any queer person would want to join the military, much less fight in war—especially at a time of seemingly endless war, when military service is either a death sentence or a lifetime guarantee of physical and psychological trauma. As queer people, we have more than enough death, destruction and discrimination to deal with—why add this to our plate? Finally, there is the deeper moral concern that once we have full access to the military, we will be fully implicated in its work. Can we really call it “progress” when we trade our dishonorable discharges for dishonorable dispatches?
For more on the US military, read Tim McCarthy on why "War is (Still) Hell."