Back in the mid-1980s, with the Cold War still peaking and the idea of the fall of the Soviet Union no more than a utopian fantasy, turning 18 was a turning point in my life — the time when I had to register with Selective Service to make myself available for any potential reinstatement of the draft. The idea of a draft, at the time, seemed real enough to me and many of my military-age cohorts — I was the son of a Vietnam War draftee, after all.
But deep inside I knew I had an out if I needed it.
Like many men my age and older, being gay was a sort of homo escape hatch if military service were to become required once more. And during my early years out of the closet, I couldn't understand why anyone who was gay or lesbian would subject themselves to a military that seemed hellbent on ridding itself of them.
Luckily, one of the benefits of living in D.C. is the proximity to so many members of the military, so it wasn't long after I moved here that I found myself making friends with active service members who happened to be gay and lesbian. What had been easy to dismiss from my blinkered perspective was difficult to ignore when I heard it directly from those who chose to join despite the official discrimination: a sense of honor and duty, and a desire to serve a nation they obviously loved. Even those I've known who've joined for purely economic reasons — the military remains the great escape hatch into upward mobility for so many, rural and urban, gay and straight — developed that same streak of committed service.
Those service members are the reason that, for me, repeal of ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' (DADT) has come to be the most important gay and lesbian political goal we face.
I certainly believe marriage equality is a vitally important goal and, as for so many of us, marriage speaks directly to my own life and relationship. But while the country has moved forward in many ways, it's become more and more obvious that marriage will be an issue settled by the courts.
The Proposition 8 trial currently underway is the first step in the march to the Supreme Court, and the idea that those nine justices are insulated from the results of the political process is naive, at best. Repealing DADT, an action supported by a large majority of Americans, is vital to demonstrate to politicians and judges alike that gay and lesbian citizens are accepted members of society.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is another goal high on the LGBT political list and one of great importance to those who find their very livelihoods threatened by bias. But ENDA, like the Hate Crimes law the preceded it, is about defining us as needing protection — and, at times, many of us do — not about defining us as members of the greater American community.
Repealing DADT to allow open, honest military service by gays and lesbians is an act not of protection but of inclusion. It simply says, ''We belong.''
From the thousands of soldiers who've been discharged under DADT to the thousands who now serve in silence, our political leaders — our allies — have waited far too long to act. For both the president and the congress, the time is now.