DADT Repeal: The Long and Winding Road

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Joe Lieberman on Capitol Hill today. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty

Gay rights victories, like today’s repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” are inevitably linked to Stonewall, the 1969 riots that launched the modern-day LGBT movement. But 41 years ago, few gay activists would have expected that enlisting in the military would become such a major test of equality. Back then, gays wanted to get out of enlisting so they wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam, and the country in general was at its peak of anti-war sentiment. The infamous Tet Offensive happened in 1968; in 1971, 750,000 protesters marched against the war in the nation’s capital (then the largest march in U.S. history) and 300,000 more took to the streets in San Francisco. Gay protesters were known to hoist signs saying “Soldiers — Make Each Other — Not War” and “Suck Cock to Beat the Draft.” The Youth Committee of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations resolved not just to reject “the insane war” but also to “refuse to encourage complicity” in it or “the war machine, which may well be turned against us.” As Randy Shilts wrote in his seminal history of gays in the military, Conduct Unbecoming: “It was elemental: to be gay and an activist in 1971 meant to be against the war.”

Indeed, gay rights was such a radical idea back in those heady days that the only allies activists had were fellow leftists. So it’s striking to see how far to the center some gay issues have since moved, like the Matthew Shepard Act hate-crimes law (passed in October 2009) and now DADT. (Another big goal for the LGBT movement — aside from marriage equality, of course — is the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has been stuck in legislative limbo for some time, a fact the new Congress certainly won’t change.) Today’s Senate vote to allow open service by gays garnered support from eight Republican senators, following the 15 House members who voted in favor of repeal earlier this week — small margins, but bipartisanship nonetheless. And as a recent Pentagon study showed, 70 percent of military personnel don’t care if gays serve openly, and most Americans feel the same. If joining the military was unthinkable to Stonewall gays, so was this wide embrace of gay rights.

But while same-sex marriage remains the top priority for most gay people, ending DADT sends an important message of its own: that gay men and lesbians have now been accepted as ultimate American patriots, willing to serve their country with honor and defend it from harm. The military has long symbolized the heart of America, and gay people have now been granted unequivocal access to it. That’s one reason many activists have viewed repealing DADT as a necessary step on the road to marriage equality. (One of the questions the military will have to answer as repeal is implemented concerns benefits for the same-sex partners of service men and women, which creates additional pressure to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act that blocks federal recognition of same-sex relationships.)

Of course, it took 17 years to repeal DADT after it was enacted, and it’s only been six years since same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts. And though both efforts have depended on countless smaller victories over the years and decades (non-discrimination ordinances, openly gay politicians, landmark Supreme Court rulings...), there was a time when marriage equality was unthinkable too. After all, many gays opposed the “heterosexist” institution of marriage almost as much as they did the military.

But as gay people and their allies celebrate another equal-rights milestone, the U.S. is still engaged in two wars, including one that earlier this year eclipsed the duration of the Vietnam war. Granted, Afghanistan has little in common with its predecessor, except for one thing: the American public is increasingly against it. Indeed, among all the tweets that cheered today's milestone, a few also came with a coda: “YAY for DADT repeal! (But can we end these two wars now?)”