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Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: Ten years dead, but some haters want to restore it


Ten years ago “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was consigned to the ash heap of history. DADT had been the official policy of the Clinton administration, signed into law in 1993, which Clinton sold as a more humane approach to gay people in the U.S. military. Prior to it, gays had been strictly banned. After it, they could serve—as long as they remained closeted. Clinton simply did not feel he had the support of enough Americans, or enough senior military leaders in the Pentagon, to go beyond DADT.

When Obama ran for president, he promised to end DADT, and he did. A little more than ten years ago (Dec. 15, 2010), with strong White House support, repeal of the discriminatory law passed in the House (250-175) and, three days later, in the Senate (65-31). With that, one of the worst chapters in American civil rights history came to a deserved end. Today, gay men and women serve proudly in all branches of the U.S. armed services.

We gay Americans, especially those of us of a certain age who have witnessed decades of homophobia, were enormously grateful to Obama, to the Democrats (and a few Republicans) in Congress who understood how wrong DADT was, and in particular to those military leaders who supported ending the law—in many cases, over the fierce objections of their Pentagon colleagues. One of my heroes in that effort was Admiral Mike Mullen. He was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior commander in the nation. He steadfastly supported ending DADT and never wavered despite enormous criticism from homophobic conservatives, most of them Christian. The military had long been a hotbed of antigay sentiment. A 1957 study commissioned by the U.S. Navy, The Crittenden Report, declared that “Homosexuality is wrong, it is evil, and it is to be branded as such…[it] is an offense to all decent and law-abiding people, and it is not to be condoned on grounds of ‘mental illness’ any more than other crimes such as theft, homicide or criminal assault.” (So embarrassed was the Pentagon by the Crittenden Report that they kept it secret until 1976.) I well remember being a gay 18-year old in 1964, the year I became eligible for the Draft. I was petrified of being inducted into the Army, not because I hated America, not because I was a pacifist, not even because I was against the Vietnam War (which I wasn’t at the time), but because I feared getting beaten up, arrested or worse, if they found out about me.

Admiral Mullen’s story deserves to be inscribed in the hallowed pages of the struggle for the civil rights of all Americans. He shocked the world when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which was considering DADT, on Feb. 2, 2010. Nobody knew what he was going to say, but everybody knew it would be determinative. Most people expected Mullen would hedge, but instead, he came out swinging:

Mr. Chairman, speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity–theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.

So angry were Senate Republicans at Mullen’s testimony that they refused to publish it in the Senate’s official report on the hearing. Of course, those Republicans, and the extreme homophobes they fostered in their midst—people like Franklin Graham and Mike Pence—never accepted the ending of DADT. They always hated gay people, and they still do, even as Pence is now the sitting vice-president.

There have been at least four moments in the history of gay civil rights that made me enormously proud: one, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom started marrying same-sex couples at San Francisco’s City Hall, secondly when Congress and Obama ended DADT, thirdly when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and most recently, when Mayor Pete Buttigieg ran his campaign for president. Mayor Pete, proudly out of the closet and married to his husband Chasten, was articulate as he called out Franklin Graham and Pence for what they are: bigots and “Christian” hypocrites.

We’ve won a lot of victories, but we can never rest on our laurels. The Grahams, Pences and their ilk are still out there, burrowing like termites into the fabric of America, trying their best to undermine the civil rights of millions and millions of gay Americans. And they’re not just voices in the wilderness: there’s no question that huge numbers of the 70 million people who voted for Trump are homophobes. Several Supreme Court Justices, all of them Catholic or evangelical (including Coney-Barrett), are on record as declaring that gays have no rights in America when it comes to whom they can marry. Their interpretation of the Constitution is bizarre to say the least. But they have power.

So while we celebrate the end of DADT, we must constantly remain on our guard. The haters are all around, secretly plotting, running for school boards, county supervisors, mayors, zoning commissioners, state legislators. They will never go away. They know in their hearts that they’re dead-enders, but that motivates them even more strongly. Their Bible tells them that homosexuality is a sin punishable by death, and they believe it. And if you don’t believe they would impose the death penalty on gay Americans if they ever have 100% power, you’re not paying attention!

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