Victory Found, Opportunity Lost
BY Aaron Belkin
January 10 2011 4:00 AM ET
But because the public tends to take military leaders at their word, we in the repeal community chose to engage in a dishonest conversation for nearly two decades. As long as military leaders continued to say, with a straight face, that equality would undermine the military, there was no way for us to frame the conversation in terms of unfairness and paranoia. So we shelved or downplayed rhetoric about that and focused instead on the bogus debate about whether repeal would undermine unit cohesion.
I have delivered more than 25 lectures on “don’t ask, don’t tell” at West Point and other military universities. During almost every question and answer session, a cadet says something offensive about gays and lesbians. Each time, I patiently explain that even if one believes that homosexuality is a sin or a “lifestyle choice,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated clearly that the question for the military is whether repeal would undermine readiness. My colleagues in the repeal movement and I have successfully pitched a lot of media stories about Arabic linguists fired for being gay, but not so many about the connection among various forms of paranoia such as homophobia, racism, and xenophobia. That story is still one that needs to be told and explored.
It has not been difficult to undermine the military’s arguments about unit cohesion and readiness, since much of the data already existed in 1993. The real trick was simply updating the evidence and presenting it to journalists on an ongoing basis. At this point, the unit cohesion arguments are so discredited that almost everyone has come around, including former secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn—the ringleaders of the 1993 effort to block openly gay service. Even those military leaders who oppose repeal now agree that it could be implemented with strong leadership.
If we had to fight this fight all over again, we would probably engage in the same strategy and publicly dismantle the unit cohesion rationale slowly over time. But in failing to emphasize the paranoid basis of the policy, we have failed to hold our opponents fully accountable and thus missed an opportunity to engage with the public on this disturbing and dangerous aspect of American culture. With those deciding votes, one more right soon will be extended to one more previously outcast community. But the deeper parts of the culture that gave rise to the discriminatory policy in the first place remain alive and well.