Column: Lift biased ban, respect rights of gays

Equality before the law is one of the fundamental principles upon which American society is built. From this principle judges have declared discrimination in all its hurtful forms, subtle though they may be, to be anathema to American values. Still, one very significant portion of society is closed to a great deal of Americans simply because they are different.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning gays from openly serving in the military stands as an affront to America’s egalitarian tradition of equality and the march of progress that has steadily destroyed discriminatory practices.

Eight years of this failed compromise has left no one happy and exposes gay military personnel to harassment and violent attacks while robbing them of any semblance of protection. America should abandon its policy that prevents gays from serving in the military and allow all soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen to serve their country openly.

Eight years ago, newly elected President Bill Clinton badly bungled his attempts to lift the ban on gays in the military. As commander in chief of American armed forces, he needed only to issue an executive order lifting the ban to accomplish his goal of ending the discriminatory practice. According to news accounts at the time, he had the votes to withstand a Congressional challenge to his actions, if he stood firm and vetoed any attempts to override his order.

Instead, frightened by opposition in Congress and from shortsighted military brass, Clinton balked and accepted the compromise that is now in place.

The opposition arguments took many forms. Some, like retired General Norman Schwartzkopf, said allowing gays to serve openly would ruin the “good order and discipline” of the military and would damage morale. Others insisted that the military was not the place for the president to conduct social experiments. The debate began to focus on details like communal showers and the close quarters on Navy ships. Little attention was paid to questions of Constitutional rights or fundamental fairness.

But eight years later, the plan that emerged from the political melee is clearly a failure. The Defense Department inspector general conducted a survey of 75,000 service members. The results released in March 2000 showed that in the past year, 80 percent of respondents heard derogatory anti-gay remarks, 37 percent witnessed or experienced incidents of anti-gay harassment, 9 percent reported anti-gay threats and 5 percent witnessed or experienced anti-gay physical assaults. The majority of those surveyed said their leaders took no steps to combat the harassment.

The most frustrating aspect of the current policy is the lack of options available to a service member who is harassed or attacked. Reporting such conduct will likely lead to a discharge from the military – essentially, the victim is fired for reporting the abuse.

Clearly the breakdown in discipline that military leaders feared eight years ago has already occurred, and not because of the false stereotype that gays are inordinately promiscuous or disruptive in their behavior due to their sexual orientation. Instead, homophobia on the part of straight military personnel, reinforced by inaction from their superiors has led to harassment and abuse that is frightening in its scope and terrifying in its viciousness. The fears of gays preying on their straight shipmates or bunkmates has been replaced by gay service members’ fears of attacks by their straight peers.

As for arguments that ending discrimination would be inappropriately using the military as an arena for social experimentation, in the eight years “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been in effect, non-discrimination policies incorporating sexual orientation have become the norm at major corporations in America and abroad. Clinton added sexual orientation to the government’s own employment non-discrimination policies, but that action did not affect the military. Corporate America has already conducted the experiment, and the results are astounding. Openly gay men and women work closely in difficult and demanding jobs with straight employees without incident.

Discrimination is wrong, and for nearly 50 years America has steadily moved away from its bigoted past. Ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is the next logical step. Gays serve openly in the armed forces of America’s European allies. These same gay soldiers work alongside American service members in joint operations. Success can be achieved.

In the late 1940s, the military was officially racially integrated. Many of the same arguments against inclusion of black soldiers are again being used against gay soldiers. No one doubts that racial integration was a correct and courageous choice. Lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military – ending another discriminatory practice – is right and just and should be done immediately.

-The writer, a junior majoring in history, is Hatchet opinions editor.

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