'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal: Final frontier of the civil rights movement?

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Welcome to the future. In an unprecedented move this week, both houses of Congress passed the repeal of the American military’s anti-gay policy commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). President Obama will sign the repeal into law next week, as he promised to do during his campaign for The White House.

The political pundits have applauded. Gay rights activists and their Democratic allies are pleased. But the taste of victory belongs to the soldiers, who for too long have been asked to die, but denied the right to live and love out loud. What a simple miracle it is to be resurrected.

The struggle for civil rights in this country has been paid for in the sweat, tears and blood of the descendents of African-American slaves. The comparison of gay rights and civil rights has often been debated as a separate and unequal conflation. Some agree. Others vehemently disagree. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted, “Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ will be a civil rights milestone. This may be the Brown v. Board of gay rights.” I will leave it to you to decide if that is fair, but what I will suggest is something simpler, kinder and gentler: that everyone who is willing to die for our country deserves the respect of those who don’t.

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Following the Pentagon’s report released a few weeks ago, it was finally clear an overwhelming majority of military servicemen and women were comfortable with the end of DADT. 70 percent of those surveyed said they had no problem with gay men and women serving alongside them in battle.

I personally interviewed African-American women and men who currently serve or have served in the past, one of whom had been injured in Iraq. Their tone and approach surprised me for two reasons, (1) they all admitted that gays and lesbians were already serving with dignity and pride, and (2) they feared the end of DADT would subject them to a greater level of harassment and discrimination.

These officers embodied the duality often found in gay men and lesbians: a resolve to the complicated definition of being who you are and who you could be, while accepting how it is, and how it should be.

The nuance lay in the fact that by placing a muzzle on the topic, those who were gay and lesbian could live their truth in silence and the protection of anonymity. This appears to be a far too common way of dealing with issues that are difficult to discuss. The African-American community, in general and in particular, must begin to confront the demons hiding in our closets; instead of retreating to our proverbial corners. Open up the dialogue and confront this final frontier. As I have written before: of what is our Constitution made if we can die in the desert, but are unable to walk down the street holding hands?

Retired General Colin Powell, the highest ranking African-American to ever serve in the United States Armed Forces, has repeatedly said that repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was imminent and necessary. He has fully supported the end of the policy and has gone as far as to admit his own change of heart on the subject in the nearly twenty years since it was first implemented. Powell’s ability to admit his own oversight is a reflection of his integrity as a man and as an officer.

Sadly, as Robert F. Kennedy once said , “Change has its enemies.” That is true. But much like those who marched the streets of Detroit, Chicago, Selma and Montgomery — we must believe. Even in the face of violent opposition. Change has finally become something to believe in.