On one hand, ending the impractical and ethically indefensible Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy for gays serving in the nation’s military could be seen as a small achievement. It essentially puts to rest a bizarre compromise made during the Clinton administration. But on the other hand, the congressional vote that killed the tortured policy is a giant step forward, essentially having the federal government acknowledge for the first time that gay Americans are entitled to the same rights and protections as their straight counterparts.
Had President Bill Clinton kept his 1992 campaign promise and allowed gays to serve openly in the military, Congress might have devoted energy to other, more pressing concerns. The same might be said about President Barack Obama. The federal courts probably would have continued to rule the policy unconstitutional in the coming months, but the abrupt nature of the change may have left the Defense Department scrambling to implement it.
So senators and representatives — including all four members of Maine’s delegation — boldly went where none had gone before. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, co-sponsored the repeal bill, and worked for much of the last year to get Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed. Sen. Olympia Snowe voted in favor of the measure, despite the fact that she may pay a political price for the vote if she faces a more conservative primary challenger in 2012. Both Democratic House members, Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, supported the change.
Such votes take courage. Doing the morally right thing often means bucking conventional thinking and majority opinion, although recent polls showed those serving in the military and civilians generally supported the change. The history of civil rights is a march from exclusion toward inclusion, whether it is women getting the right to vote, those of African descent getting citizenship and access to employment and housing, and gays getting the rights the majority enjoy. But at the crossroads, the historic dimensions of those decisions often are hard to recognize.
Sens. Collins and Snowe and Reps. Michaud and Pingree were able to look beyond the moment and into the future, where this change will be heralded as fair and just. President Harry Truman is remembered for ending, by a 1948 executive order, the segregation of the armed forces. Sens. Collins and Snowe, who parted ways with the majority of their GOP colleagues to vote to end DADT, should also be remembered in the same way.
The facts are plain. Some Americans are gay. Some gay Americans want to serve their country by enlisting in the armed forces, and indeed, have done so since the nation was founded. Now, they can do so with pride instead of fear.