Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is an important milestone—for all of us

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper about the role of white “liberals” in the Civil Rights movement. The gist of my argument was that in some respects they were a greater hindrance to the advancement of liberty than dyedin-the-wool bigots were. To illustrate my point, I told a story of a meeting between Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and several African-American leaders, including James Baldwin. At one point, Kennedy told the group that he was sympathetic to their cause but that they needed to be “patient.”

“We’ve been patient for 400 years,” Baldwin said.

I thought of that story recently when Congress repealed the military policy commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” When President Clinton implemented the policy as a compromise with fervent opponents of gay rights, he was guilty of the same flawed thinking that Kennedy was during that meeting. Clinton was tacitly accepting the idea that while equality for homosexuals was a fine ideal, we need to work slowly toward that goal. Underlying this sentiment—and that policy—is a concession to a widespread attitude that masquerades as tolerance:

“I don’t care what people do in the privacy of their bedroom,” many people say, “as long as they don’t flaunt their sexuality.”

Indeed, I cannot count how many times I’ve heard so-called liberals make this comment.

It continually astonishes me that so many people fail to see the problem with this position. Heterosexuals, after all, “flaunt” their sexuality on a daily basis. If you have a picture of your spouse on your office desk, you’re “flaunting” your sexuality; if you’ve ever gone out to a romantic dinner and held hands across the table or kissed your boyfriend or girlfriend goodbye outside a restaurant, you’ve “flaunted” your sexuality.

If you’ve ever gone to a party and introduced someone as your husband or wife, you’ve “flaunted” your sexuality. Heterosexuals don’t think of it in these terms, of course. They just take such public expressions of our sexuality and affections for granted. And that’s the point: For generations, gays and lesbians have been denied this freedom to celebrate or even acknowledge their relationships in public, in the same ways that heterosexuals have always done.

The recent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was an important step in the right direction. We as a society have taken other important steps as well. It is noteworthy, for example, that earlier this year a gay pride celebration called Out in the Park took place in Norfolk’s Town Point Park, the city’s premier public space. There was a time, not long ago, when city officials would never have tolerated such a thing.

I found it encouraging that they appear to have no problem with it now—or at least appear to have accepted that they can’t do anything to stop it. Moreover, I was struck by the fact so many straight people—people I knew—came out to support the cause and mingled with hundreds of gay couples who were openly displaying the kind of affection for one another that straight people display all the time.

The scene reinforced my belief that in another generation or so, homosexuality will be a non-issue. After all, the overwhelming majority of the up-and-coming generation—which I come into contact with on a daily basis as a teacher at ODU—seems to have no problem whatsoever with open homosexuality.

Shannon Bowman, a local gay-rights activist, agrees that the Hampton Roads community has made great strides in the last few years. She points to groups like Equality Virginia and Hampton Roads Business Outreach (HRBOR), which has helped gain acceptance for gay-and-lesbian-owned businesses in the business community as a whole. Additionally, she recently launched a non-profit called Your Out Source, which runs a web site that attempts to unify the efforts of various other gay-oriented nonprofits and is working on an oral history project, a film and possibly a book that will document the experiences of gays and lesbians in our community.

Nevertheless, we have a long way to go.

“We still lack legal rights in Virginia,” she notes, pointing out, for example, that gay marriage is still illegal and that our governor and attorney general even oppose anti-discrimination laws specifically designed to protect gays and lesbians in the workplace.

“I think we’ve made great strides in changing attitudes among the general populace,” she said, “but we’ve yet to change attitudes in the legislature.”

In other words, we can’t take for granted that progress is inevitable.

And we can’t simply be “patient” until that time comes. I say “we” because we all have a stake in this. If any single group in our society is subjected to institutional discrimination, then your civil rights and mine are potentially threatened as well.

The self-evident truth of this position was summed up beautifully after World War II by Martin Niemoller, a German pastor and intellectual, who was reflecting on the atrocities of the Nazi regime. “First they came for the communists,” he said, “and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Yes, some people argue, but the military is different. Open acceptance of homosexuals in the military could harm morale, and that would put us all in danger. But the truth is, people said the same things about the enforcement of racial integration of the military.

Today most people don’t even think twice about this. Acceptance of women in the military is taking a little longer, but we’re well on our way toward that goal.

Ah, but there’s another problem, some people argue: Soldiers, sailors and Marines live in close quarters. We don’t have women sleeping in the same bunk rooms with men, or sharing the same showers.

How can we have gays sharing those spaces with straights?

But again, history is instructive. Forty years ago the idea of co-ed dorms in colleges was unheard of. Today they are the norm. And ironically, sexual harassment—while still an alarming problem—is far less common than it was, say, back in the 1960s. (Think Mad Men.)

It is less common because, as a society, we are steadily moving toward the consensus that sexual harassment is unacceptable. In spite of the fact that far too many people still dismiss it as overblown—or worse, somehow believe that women who are victims of it deserve it because they have invited it—I believe that attitudes are changing. In any event, the fact is we shouldn’t worry about trying to accommodate people who live in fear and prejudice. On the other hand, I’m not naïve. I know that attitudes don’t change overnight and that military leaders will face difficulties as they try to openly accommodate gays. But it is a necessary fight. If we were to give into the forces of bigotry, we would not only do a disservice to gays and lesbians. Essentially, we would be saying that Jefferson’s famous words in the Declaration of Independence really aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

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