We often complain that promises made to our community are ''just words,'' palliatives designed to make us feel that something is being done without any actual progress being made. It's unsurprising we would feel this way, given the history of bright words said on our behalf, from President Bill Clinton's promise to end the ban on gay and lesbian military service to President Barack Obama's promise to be a ''fierce advocate'' for our community.
We know how that first promise turned out: a law that required gay and lesbian soldiers to live a lie. As for the second promise, the jury's still out and may come down to determining what the meaning of ''fierce'' is. Words can be easy, actions hard.
But as hesitant as we may be to accept them, words can also hold far more meaning than their literal definitions. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen's statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 2, contained exactly those kinds of words — words that not only said something we've been waiting nearly two decades to hear, but words that actually signify something is going to change: ''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 this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and woman 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.''
Those are the words and sentiments we've waited so long to hear from a military leader, and it's difficult to overstate how important they are in the fight to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly.
That's not to say, as welcome and moving as Mullen's words were, that change will come easy. Sen. John McCain, who once claimed that he would support a policy change when the military's leadership called for it, heard the military's call for change and decided that the leadership wasn't the leadership, after all.
McCain has a bit of a Moses-at-the-rock problem: He's come to believe not that he serves the institution, but that he is the institution.
Despite the continuing support of nearly three-quarters of Americans and the public commitment of Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, this final push to end a nearly 17-year-old policy of official discrimination and forced dishonesty will face plenty of obstacles. Foes of equality will mount their campaigns of fears and fallacies in hopes of delaying and derailing progress.
There's much work to be done and, yes, a lot remains to be done by President Obama. The administration's cautious and considered approach has finally begun — we'll need to witness his public commitment to seeing it through.
But let's not forget that Congress is where DADT was born and Congress is where it will die. It will take not only leadership from the White House and the Pentagon to get DADT repealed — it will take the energy and activism of the gay and lesbian community, and our allies, to ensure that Congress does the right thing.
Now is the time to start writing and calling your congressmen, and ask your family and friends to do so as well. Now is the time to make your voice heard for those who, by law, are bound to keep their own voices silent.