21 December 2010

My personal history with "the gay"

Col. Cammermeyer
Tomorrow President Obama will sign legislation to eventually repeal a series of rules at the Department of Defense known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."  For the past 13 years, it's been OK to BE gay and serve in the military, as long as you don't ever let anyone actually KNOW that you're gay. (Of course, if someone outs you, you're discharged.)  And theoretically, the DoD isn't supposed to care who you sleep with - i.e., for 13 years or so they haven't asked people who enlist about their sexual preferences. Of course that hasn't stopped them from discharging 14,000 people under this rule in that time.

It's always been an important issue to me, one I've always followed very closely - not just on the merits, and not just because I've always known a lot of gay people.

(No, this is not where I tell everyone I'm gay.  Sorry.)

This issue (then referred to as "gays in the military") was the first item I ever worked on as a paid Senate staffer.  It was 1993, I was fresh out of college (and a stint in Connecticut on the presidential campaign), and I had just scored a job as a staff assistant on Senator Kennedy's Labor and Human Resources Committee.   My boss was responsible for "gay issues" (among many other things) for the Senator and I was basically the guy who help his small office run - answered the phones, hired and fired interns, wrote the speeches/letters/memos he was too busy to write, do some help with research on this or that.

Politically, I don't think this was an issue any of us really expected to address at that time.  President Clinton had just entered office, the new session of Congress was just starting. The economy was top on everyone's agenda, and while candidate Clinton mentioned his support for lifting the ban on gays in the military, it was never considered a top-5 issue at the time.  But opportunists saw a wedge issue that played on people's fears and made the President look weak.  Republicans quickly tried to codify a ban and dared Democrats to oppose them.  The Senate Armed Services Committee, then led by Sam Nunn (a conservative Democrat from Georgia), almost immediately called for hearings. And this is when I started learning about how politics works in the big leagues.

On the merits, this was never a complicated issue to me.  Granted, I've always had a bias in favor of advancing civil rights and protecting minorities.  But to me, the merits have always gone something like this:

General: A lot of soldiers think gay people have cooties, so we can't have them in our military.  I need my soldiers to focus on killing enemies, not avoiding cooties.
Liberal guy: But gay people really don't have cooties.  You're just condoning prejudice.
General: I don't have the luxury of adopting your Utopian world view.  I have wars to fight, and I can't take on every social issue you want me to.
Liberal: But gay people are already in the military, you just don't know they're gay.  Gay people aren't the source of the cooties, it's the perception of gay people that brings the cooties.
General: Hmm... never thought about it that way.  OK, from now on, nobody is ever allowed to think about gay people.  I'm not going to bring it up, and you're not allowed to say you're gay.   Anyone who talks about the gay is out.   There - problem solved.
Liberal: Wait, that's not what I meant...

Of course, there was much more to the debate than this.  I saw a lot of nasty, nasty stuff.  I watched Senators tell gay people directly they had an affliction and they needed medical help.  I watched people tell decorated veterans they were condemned or unnatural.  I heard the same arguments that racists made against integration and that nazis made against Jewish people - things like gays spread disease, they hurt morale generally, they can't control themselves, they are all part of some big conspiracy.

I also saw what I thought to be cowardice but what was probably political reality - Senator Kennedy spoke up strongly in favor of lifting the ban in 1993 while most other Democrats were largely silent.  Today we see he was truly ahead of his time.  The political "compromise" that was struck represented little more than an accommodation for a new president who couldn't afford a total loss.  In substance, DADT wasn't a compromise at all.  Before 1993, the military began the discharge process as soon as it learned a person was gay.  That's still the policy today.  DADT was, however, a tacit acknowledgement that being gay wasn't the problem.  It took 13 years for that logical concession to result in a real change.

But what I'm struck by most is the courage I saw from so many people.  "Coming out" is a difficult thing to today, let alone 13 years ago.  I watched my boss, an openly gay man, stare down hate and work closely with people who had no bones about telling him he was an abomination.   I watched another young man, then in the closet while working for a Republican senator, risk his job by coming by the office after hours to provide strategic counsel and intelligence.  (That man eventually became one of the most influential liberal political bloggers in America.) And I watched a host of veterans who served in our military with distinction come through our office and tell their story - knowing the consequences would be significant.

One of those veterans was Colonel Grethe Cammermeyer, a decorated army nurse who acknowledged she was a lesbian during a security clearance interview in 1989  About 3 years later (military bureaucracy being what it is) she was "separated" from the military and quickly filed suit.  Her story was the one that really catapulted the issue to the forefront - she wrote a book, the book turned into a movie (Glenn Close played her character), and she testified at the Congressional hearing, where I remember Senator Strom Thurmond openly questioned her mental health.  I never spoke with her that much but she came by the office a few times and I remember her as personable, courageous, engaging, and smart.  Eventually she won her lawsuit, was reinstated in the military, and retired in 1997.

Earlier this year the Undersecretary of Defense issued a press release without much fanfare, announcing some additions to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, "an independent advisory committee that provides the department with advice and recommendations on matters and policies relating to the recruitment and retention, treatment, employment, integration, and well-being of highly qualified professional women in the armed forces." Tucked in a list of ten names was Col. Cammermeyer.

These changes have come far too slowly.  And more changes are still needed.  But tomorrow I'll be thinking of all the brave people I met and all the lessons I learned and I'll smile.

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