Way back in 1993, I was a young activist filled with the desire to make the world a better place for gays and lesbians. Many of us had worked hard to elect Bill Clinton to the White House, something we believed would help bring about that positive change.
Of course, as we all know, things didn’t work out that way. The promise of ending the military’s policy of expelling gay servicemembers morphed into an all-out anti-gay assault on the community. It was profoundly distressing to watch that early promise give way to despair as the odious ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise steamrolled into our lives.
So it was no small moment to sit on Wednesday morning, Dec. 22, in an auditorium packed with LGBT activists, politicians and servicemembers to witness the undoing of DADT. President Barack Obama told the ebullient crowd, ”[W]e are not a nation that says, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We are a nation that says, ‘Out of many, we are one.”’
I couldn’t help but get a bit teary eyed as the reality and import of the moment set in. For the first time, Congress had passed a stand-alone bill that was aimed at making gay citizens more, not less, equal. And, for the first time, a president who made a big promise delivered on it.
The afterglow of success will mute a lot of the emotional highs and lows of the past few weeks, when the prospects for repeal seemed dim and diminishing. Certainly, a rousing presidential speech makes it easier to forget how perilously close we came to losing — despite having the military, the public and the votes on our side.
The president got it done. None of this would have happened without the Pentagon so strongly on board and he — along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen — deserves credit for fostering that support. People like to toss around the phrase ”fierce advocate” in sneer quotes, but it’s a mistake to interpret ”fierce advocate” as someone whose every speech is a crescendo. Quietly and calmly, he got his end of it done.
Given the spectacle of GOP obstructionism in the Senate under Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who even the night before the signing attempted one last stab at keeping the policy by proposing an amendment that would essentially have given a veto on repeal to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos — it’s important that we all acknowledge the Republicans who joined with Democrats to make history for equality. It may not always be easy for some of us, but sometimes we have to say ”thank you” and mean it.
No matter the efforts of the White House or Congress, this could never have happened without the courage of those servicemembers who have advocated on behalf of those who could not, whose leadership by example changed public opinion. While the repeal of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is a victory for us all, the biggest victory is for those gays and lesbians still in the military — or planning to rejoin — who can soon serve with both honor and honesty.
Despite the stirring speeches and celebrations, the story of DADT repeal isn’t quite finished, as the plan for repeal must still be developed, approved by Obama, Gates and Mullen, and then undergo a 60-day congressional review. The president said that the chiefs of the armed services are pledged to move ”swiftly and efficiently” to get it done. It’s our job to hold them accountable.
But, for at least a day or so during this holiday season, we should take the time to savor a victory so long in coming.