The demise, under President Obama’s leadership, of the pernicious “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that excluded gays and lesbians from serving in the US military should not obscure how much time was lost and how much damage done in the 17 years between its implementation by President Bill Clinton and its repeal. Back in July of 2000, the late Doug Ireland wrote about the imperative of repealing the policy, in a Nation article titled “Search and Destroy.”

This disastrous policy was born out of Bill Clinton’s refusal to honor his 1992 campaign pledge to let gays serve openly in uniform. In large part because of his own reputation as a draft dodger, Clinton knuckled under to pressure from the generals and admirals and their allies in Congress, thus betraying the principle of civilian control of the military and sending a signal to the Pentagon crowd that he could be rolled (as ever-increasing military-procurement budgets in his two terms have shown).

Moreover, Clinton’s capitulation forced the gay movement to fight on a battleground not of its own choosing. The 1993 gay-run Campaign for Military Service not only strained the movement’s limited resources; the losing effort was also a PR disaster for gay politics that undercut the chance to pass the critically important Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) while Democrats still controlled the Congress.

Many left-wing gays were uncomfortable at seeing precious energies squandered in combat for the right to serve in a military they disdained and distrusted. But once the issue was joined, the movement had no choice but to confront the tidal wave of slurs against same-sexers deployed by four-star homophobes like Colin Powell and bigoted politicians like Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn. And all the more so because military homophobia is also a class issue: The overwhelming majority of its victims are young recruits who joined up to get an education or career, lured by the bright promises of flashy campaigns and aggressive high school recruiting, often before they admit to themselves they’re gay.

December 22, 2010

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