Anti-gay activists have long considered 1993’s Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell compromise one of their most prized victories. In one fell swoop, they humiliated President Bill Clinton, flexed their political muscle, and put lesbian and gay people in their place.
What the extremists never understood was that Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was their movement’s death knell. This bitter fight elevated gay rights to a national issue for the first time in history. Prior to 1993, discussions about LGBT people were usually spoken in hushed tones. Suddenly, gay people were photographed on the cover of magazines, quoted in the A Section of newspapers, and interviewed on television news programs (not just the daytime talk shows). The nation was introduced to honorable role models such as Tracy Thorne, the Top Gun pilot with movie star looks, and Vietnam Bronze Star recipient Grethe Cammermeyer.
The national March on Washington occurred at roughly the same time, offering an opportunity for thousands of people, emboldened by the gays in the military debate, to come out of the closet in a safe and inspiring atmosphere.
Up until that moment, the public, the media, and religious institutions had decided to render gay people invisible or portrayed them as sinful circus acts. There was virtually no effort to show homosexuals as multi-dimensional people who led complete, fulfilling lives.
The first Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell loss was actually a victory (except for the 14,000 brave gay troops who were fired) because it destroyed the taboo of homosexuality. At that moment, LGBT people became an identifiable group to mainstream Americans and were firmly ingrained in public consciousness.
Seventeen years later, the scare tactics of the opposition were rendered ineffective because people had friends and family members who were openly gay. Even the majority of the troops said they thought they had served with gay service members.
This time around, our gay spokespeople were seen as dignified and patriotic, while the opposition appeared freakish, paranoid, and melodramatic. America looked at our opponents and asked, “What are you so scared of? Your fears are misplaced and, quite frankly, weird.”
There was one striking difference in this year’s tussle. In 1993, it was the politicians who were trying to get out in front of public opinion. In 2010, two-thirds of the public was squarely in favor of repealing Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, yet many elected officials were bucking the views of their constituents to appease anti-gay special interests.
The unsettling disconnect between the majority of Americans and some members of Congress – overwhelmingly Republican — who kowtow to hardcore litmus test voters, remains a real problem that will be exacerbated in 2011 when Republicans take over the House. Indeed, passing the bill took a massive lobbying effort, which included Washington insiders and new direct action groups. The legislation only made it through at the last possible moment – flaring tempers and fraying nerves.
President Bill Clinton’s painful experience with gays in the military led Obama to be overly cautious, almost killing repeal efforts. His go slow approach was frustrating and, at times, infuriating. But, in the end, he will be judged by what happens on his watch — and his efforts just earned him an upgrade from a Casio to a Rado.
To get the Rolex, he will have to sign a law prohibiting employment discrimination and abolish the odious Defense of Marriage Act. Still, the President did enough to temporarily quell bubbling anger in the LGBT community, while earning himself a degree of trust. He said he would end this heinous policy – and he did. Few people will remember the details and history will celebrate the signing ceremony, which signaled a major victory for the LGBT movement and the Obama administration.
However, expectations will be higher now that the ghost of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell has been slain. The integration of openly gay soldiers will prove to be a non-event, (like gay people marrying in 5 states) giving wavering Democrats and moderate Republicans few excuses not to vote for equality in the future.
As for our foes, they will be in disarray and have to live with the inconvenient fact that their gloom and doom scenarios never came to pass. And, they will soon have to watch their worst nightmare come to fruition, as heroic openly gay and lesbian soldiers stand on elevated platforms to receive medals for saving lives in the heat of battle.
It is telling that the week ended with former president Jimmy Carter, an observant evangelical Christian, saying he thought America would soon be ready for a gay president. With this week’s historic victory – suddenly anything looks possible.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”