Obama’s patience pays off with DADT repeal

Gravestone of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich

President Obama’s reasonableness and patience paid off when Congress repealed the legislative ban on gay men and women serving openly in the U.S. military.  He held back until after the 2010 elections, then released the Department of Defense report and put the question before the lame-duck session of Congress, the time of minimum political risk.  As a result he was able to sign the bill into law yesterday.

He did not of course accomplish this all by himself.  A lot of people deserve credit, including Senator Joseph Lieberman, who was the floor leader for the bill in the Senate.  We should remember all the people, starting with Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, the first gay serviceman to come out of the closet, whose tireless and courageous advocacy changed public opinion.

Anthony Trollope described this process of change in his political novel Phineas Finn (1867-1868)

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.”

“It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.”

“The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr. Monk, – “taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.”

via FrumForum.

It is obvious to me, now, that it is wrong to deny patriotic gay people the right to openly serve their country in uniform, or to discharge people who’ve served honorably in the armed services on the basis of their sexual orientation.  Nor, if we re-institute the draft, should people be exempt from military service, as they were in the Vietnam era, on the basis of being gay.

The change seems much less momentous than the integration of women into combat forces.  That is something I never thought would work, but the evidence shows I was wrong.  Letting gay servicemen and women serve openly instead of covertly is much less of a change.

The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has not yet changed the military policy.  The new law says that, first, President Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Michael McMullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, must sign a statement certifying that the change of policy is consistent with good order and discipline.  It strikes me as unusual for a law to be passed which in effect gives other members of an administration veto over the President, but since Gates’ and McMullen’s position is known, this is only a formality.

President Obama

Next comes a review by the armed forces of how to implement the law – everything from what benefits gay couples get (since the Defense of Marriage Act is still law) to regulations concerning sexual conduct.  This is expected to take at least a year.  Then a policy will be submitted to the President for his signature and, after an additional 60-day waiting period, it will be put into effect.

I hope, but don’t assume, that no gays will be drummed out of the armed forces in the interim.  What would it feel like to be discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell after DADT had already been repealed?

President Obama and the Democratic leadership acted rightly in waiting until the time was ripe to change the law by vote, rather than trying to change the policy by executive order or waiting for it to be changed by court decree.  Bypassing the democratic process creates justified resentment.  Progress is more solid when it is achieved by a fair vote after everyone has a say.

My impression is that fundamentalist Protestantism is stronger in the armed forces than among members of the public at large.  Robert Kaplan, in a celebratory series article in The Atlantic Monthly about the far-flung U.S. military, remarked that fundamentalist Protestantism was the means by which the military arrested the moral rot – drug addiction, indiscipline – in the post-Vietnam area (I don’t remember the exact article).  A Unitarian Universalist minister who enlisted in the Army as a chaplain said that conservative and fundamentalist Protestants are over-represented in the Corps of Chaplains because few religious liberals enlisted as chaplains in the post-Vietnam era.  I don’t know if this will generate any push-back against the new policy; I hope it doesn’t.

Click on Leonard Matlovich wiki for his Wikipedia biography.

Click on In DADT’s Wake, A New Chance to Serve for the comments of a gay Army veteran who’s now thinking of re-enlisting.

Click on Sexual orientation and military service wiki for a Wikipedia roundup of the policies of various nations.  No other Western country, including Israel, makes sexual orientation a bar to military service.

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One Response to “Obama’s patience pays off with DADT repeal”

  1. Michael@LeonardMatlovich.com Says:

    Thank you, Mr. Ebersole, for remembering my late friend Leonard Matlovich and his pioneering role in this week’s event. Author Malcolm Boyd called him the Charles Lindbergh of the gay movement. Might I suggest the Website http://www.leonardmatlovich.com where one can see video of national news coverage of his first coming out to the Air Force, along with other appearances during his subsequent broader gay rights career, and Peter Jennings announcing his death. There is also information about the first protests against the ban that began in 1964, five years before Stonewall. Thank you.


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