Many gays and lesbians already are serving their country in the armed forces, but only if they stay in the closet. The Defense Department at last is moving toward ending the mistaken 17-year-old don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, but far too slowly.
The White House and congressional Democratic leaders contrived a laborious compromise providing for an opinion survey including thousands of current service people and a requirement that President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates certify that the change will not cause “disruption’’ among the troops. The whole process is supposed to take until Dec. 1.
An amendment to that effect has been approved by the House of Representatives and by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senate debate on the measure is expected soon, but Republican resistance is expected. Sen. John McCain has said, “I’ll do everything in my power” to block a vote.
Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Armed Services Committee, agrees a change is necessary, but is supporting the go-slow approach. “Society has changed a great deal since President Clinton signed the current law, Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell, back in 1993,” she said recently. “I agree with Admiral Michael Mullen, our nation’s highest-ranking military official, that this law should be changed, but we should do so with care, taking into account the demands on our military forces, the challenges of instituting major policy changes during wartime, and the input provided by military leaders and personnel.”
This leisurely approach to reversing an unfair, counterproductive and probably unconstitutional policy makes no sense. It amounts to a cowardly delay in performing a public duty in the face of specious arguments by a powerful opposition.
The survey idea treats the military establishment as if it were some sort of democratic entity, with decisions made by rank-and-file consent. Actually, the Army, Navy and Air Force are and must be anything but democratic. Soldiers and sailors obey orders from the top down. They don’t vote on how to carry out their duties.
All it took to racially integrate the armed forces was an executive order by President Harry Truman. And he issued it in the midst of World War II. The troops accepted the order, as they later accepted the entry of women into the military.
Of course there were some incidents that required disciplinary action, just as there were always incidents when only white men served at all levels in the military.
Other countries’ experience should allay any concerns by Congress and the president. A new report by the Columbia Law School Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic says that Australia, Canada, Israel and Britain all ended their bans on gays in the military without any disruption or harm to unit cohe-sion. The director of the clinic, law professor Suzanne B. Goldberg, said in a letter to The New York Times that cohesion and morale improved with the ending of discrimination. None of those nations changed bathrooms or barracks when gay soldiers began serving openly. She said allied experience showed that clear education and training programs and clear anti-discrimination and harassment policies are the keys to ending the ban with minimal disruption.
We did it before, in the cases of African-Americans and women. Our allies have done it successfully. We can do it ourselves. Why wait?