Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Today marks the 15th anniversary of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which forces gay and lesbian Americans to hide their sexual orientation if they want to serve in the military. Time magazine has an article about it.

I have to admit that when President Bill Clinton announced the policy shortly after his inauguration in 1993, I didn't give it much thought. I didn't work with anyone who was openly gay. I didn't have any friends who were openly gay. I knew that Clinton, having grown up in the segregated South, saw it as a civil rights issue, but I wondered why he picked it to focus on so early in his first term. I didn't appreciate why it was so significant, and why "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was such a degrading policy.

Well, things have changed since then. Today, almost everyone I know works with someone or has friends or relatives who are openly gay or lesbian. I have close friends, colleagues, people I love and admire, who are gay. While things are far from perfect, as a society we have moved toward a greater understanding that a person's sexual orientation is something they're born with, and in the end, it's not a big deal, just part of what makes that person a unique individual.

I can't even comprehend how horrible, how suffocating it would be for someone I know and love to be in the closet, to fear what would happen to them if they came out. It's inhumane to expect someone to live that way. And the policy that I didn't give much thought to 15 years ago, today seems unfair, discriminatory, ridiculous and absolutely un-American.

There is no reason why, if someone wants to serve their country, they should be forced to hide something so basic about themselves. That's not what this country is supposed to be about. It goes against our values as an open, democratic, free, egalitarian nation. And I think it's a shame that the debate isn't framed that way.

While I've never been in the military, I have lived in a country - Israel - where gays serve openly. And no one would say that Israel doesn't have a strong army, that its soldiers don't face implacable enemies every bit as tough as those U.S. soldiers face in Iraq. During the year I spent in Israel, I felt totally secure that I had a strong, skilled army helping to keep me safe.

Here's what a gay ex-officer in the Israel Defense Forces had to say on the subject, and what Americans could learn from Israel. And here's a study from the Michael D. Palm Center on the impact of gays and lesbians serving openly in the Israeli army. The conclusion: "Our findings are that Israel’s decision to lift its gay ban had no impact on performance and that despite differences between the two cases, lessons from the Israeli experience are relevant for determining what would happen if the U.S. Congress and Pentagon lifted the American gay ban."

And here's a commentary from the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, arguing forcefully that the ban should be lifted. He says, in part, "Nobody thought that blacks or women could ever be integrated into the military. Many thought that an all-volunteer force could never protect our national interest. Well, it has, and despite those who feared the worst - I among them - we are still the best and will continue to be."

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