Sunday, December 19, 2010

Senate repeals "Don't ask, don't tell''

Congratulations to the U.S. Senate, you did remember how to pass a civil-rights bill! I was afraid you'd forgotten.

Fifty-five Democrats, 8 Republicans and 2 independents voted Saturday to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell" and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Their stand in favor of equality benefits all Americans, gay and straight, because a more just society benefits all of us.

A week ago I did not think this vote would happen. But for once, Congress surprised me in a good way - the House earlier in the week and the Senate yesterday. (My fellow blogger The Tin Man writes about how we got to this point.)

So kudos to Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And Joe Lieberman, who helped spearhead the effort in the Senate, nice to have you back on the side of the angels. To the Republicans who broke party ranks, thank-you for demonstrating that equality is a bipartisan issue. President Obama, thank-you for keeping a campaign promise to end DADT.

I have to admit that when Bill Clinton announced "Don't ask, don't tell" in 1993, I didn't give it much thought. I didn't have any close friends or coworkers who were openly gay. I didn't appreciate what meant to be in the closet, to be forced to live a lie in order to serve your country.

But times have changed. Laws like "Don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act affect my friends, coworkers, neighbors, people I love and admire. I understand now that those measures are unfair and un-American. That wasn't something I could have said 17 years ago. And I think that's true for a lot of straight people.

The young men and women in the American military will adapt. They're already serving with gay and lesbian soldiers who are doing their jobs quite well. I lived for a year in Israel - where gay soldiers serve openly. And no one would say that Israel doesn't have a strong army, whose troops face enemies every bit as tough as the ones U.S. troops face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When I was watching C-SPAN, one vote in favor of repeal stood out - 86-year-old Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.

Inouye, a Medal of Honor recipient, lost an arm fighting in Italy in World War II. His unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised of mostly Japanese-Americans, was among the most highly decorated in the history of the U.S. military.

Here is what he said afterward:

“Finally, all brave men and women who want to put on the uniform of our great nation and serve in the armed services may do so without having to hide who they are. My only regret is that nearly 13,000 men and women were expelled from the military during the 17 years that this discriminatory policy was in place.

"In every war we have had men and women of different sexual orientation who have risked their lives for their country. I fought alongside gay men during World War II and many of them were killed in combat. Those men were heroes. And once again, heroes will be allowed to defend their country, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

Of course they were heroes - and now all of America's heroes will be able to serve openly and proudly.

As the president stated: "gay and lesbian service members - brave Americans who enable our freedoms - will no longer have to hide who they are. The fight for civil rights, a struggle that continues, will no longer include this one."

The road to equal rights for all Americans has been a long and tortuous one and progress doesn't happen nearly fast enough. But we're getting there. And yesterday was one of the good days.

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