Today Congress will hear testimony aimed at finding a way to end the military’s policy of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."
Groundhog day seems appropriate, because it was March 2009 when I first wrote a response to DADT. The Obama administration’s failure to unilaterally end the policy along with Congressional inaction on the matter gives me chance to revisit this issue.
We must immediately end the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy and allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. We must do this because the existing policy sanctions, maintains, and enforces second-class citizenship that is incommensurate with the ideals of American democracy.
Military service is at the heart of citizenship.
The implied social contract that binds a nation to her people is most fully realized in two primary acts: tax paying and military service. Those who labor and pay a portion of their income to the government have a particularly strong claim on government services and recognition. Those who willingly risk their lives to protect the borders and the ideals of their country also have a thick claim on citizenship.
This is why the armed forces have historically been the terrain on which marginal groups have sought full inclusion into the American project.
Enslaved men who escaped to freedom behind Union lines demanded the right to fight as soldiers against the Confederacy. President Lincoln’s reluctance to arm these black men was rooted not only in his deep racial prejudices, but also in his concern that their service would give legitimate claims on equality. After the Civil War, Lincoln himself came to support the franchise for freedmen who had served in his army. In fact, his public declaration that black soldiers should have the vote precipitated his assassination.
During WWI, W.E.B. Du Bois urged African Americans to rally behind the flag and volunteer for military duty. He believed the services of black men could not go unnoticed by a grateful nation and felt that black soldiers would give the race stronger claims on the vote, equal education, and full citizenship. But in the years following WWI African American servicemen were regularly harassed, beaten, and lynched for wearing their uniforms on America’s streets. A black body in an American uniform was a statement against Jim Crow; it was a claim to full citizenship and it was viciously punished in a country still unwilling to fulfill its promise of equality.
American historians have argued that we must locate the initial impulse of the mid-century Civil Rights Movement in the radicalizing effect that WWII battles against Nazi Germany had on black soldiers. Unwilling to accept segregated service in a war against genocide and imperialism, these soldiers were unwilling to accept Jim Crow and racial violence at home.
Similar stories can be told about European immigrants who became fully American through their initial inclusion in the armed services. It can be told about young people who used their service in Vietnam to win an extension on the right to vote to 18-21 year olds. It can be told about women who moved from support roles to combat duty even as they shattered glass ceilings back home in the states.
Gay soldiers are part of this long history. Their open and unfettered participation in America’s armed services is a necessary part of the struggle for full inclusion in America. When gay men and lesbians can openly and proudly point to their sacrifices for our country then they can call upon our country for full first-class citizenship.
Let’s end DADT during Black History Month. President Obama’s presence in the White House was made possible by the broken bodies of black soldiers who believed and sacrificed for a country that shackled and segregated them. They willingly bled for this country and with that blood they bought for all of us a country where a black man could be president.
Today gay soldiers fight and die with the same hope. They too believe in America even though our country does not protect them in Civil Rights legislation, even though our country withholds marriage equality, even though our country is marred by anti-gay violence: still they believe. It is an astonishing kind of hope. It is the kind of inspiring hope that has made every great American success possible.
I know there are African Americans who bristle at the inclusion of LGBT equality as part of the long Civil Rights struggle. I’ve frequently heard black activists argue that gay identity is not like racial identity, because sexual identity can be hidden. This is a foolish argument.
The closet is not a privilege. Nothing reminds us of this more than DADT.
Soldiers not only sacrifice for our safety; they sacrifice for our equality. Now is the time for us to make good on our end of the social contract. Now is the time to end "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" and move one step closer to ending second-class citizenship for our brave gay soldiers.