This past week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the official marking of June as our nation’s military salute to gay and lesbian service members. Just a few short months ago, this would have been unthinkable, and any suggestion to create such an appreciation for homosexual service members would have been met with disdain, suspicion, or worse – discharge.
In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton signed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) into law, and so the official policy on homosexuals serving in the military was created. Before DADT, there was an absolute ban on gays in the military, and if “outed” a gay, lesbian or bisexual service member could face prison, dishonorable discharge or both. At the time DADT prohibited currently serving military members from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members, while at the same time, barring out homosexuals from joining the military. It was a controversial law, and often misunderstood and mis-applied by military members and their commanders. As part of its repeal, President Obama, Secretary Panetta, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs certified to Congress that ending DADT would not negatively impact military readiness, and the law was allowed to expire in September 2011.
Like the apparatus that guaranteed its demise, DADT was a compromise of sorts because our society’s gradual acceptance of gays and lesbians translated into a proportional number of Americans serving in the military. Many service members knew other service members who were gay, lesbian or bisexual. And many service members didn’t care. During the past decade of shared sacrifice in some rather harsh and hazardous environs, we’ve determined that sexual orientation is low on the list of priorities. It’s been said that there are “no atheists in a foxhole.” Let me tell you, there are no “alternative lifestyles in a firefight.” It’s just “lifestyle” – everyone staying alive, and everyone coming home.
The real reason our military initially eschewed the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community was of course, ignorance and fear. The cacophony of opposition was loud, sharp and based on flawed assumptions. It was widely stated that the existence of gay and lesbian soldiers would create an unacceptable risk to military readiness. This just has not been the case. As a result of allowing openly gay Americans to serve, the noise – predominantly from certain veteran organizations and others associated with the political right has been quieted. If the repeal of DADT has demonstrated anything, it is that the Department of Defense continues to be America’s social change agent as it has been since it first allowed blacks, Asians, women and others to join. This has been no surprise to the women and men who proudly serve as our nation’s Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines, and so during the month of June – and perhaps the other 11 months, let’s salute them all.