The military's
tipping point

The military's
            tipping point

For Christmas a
family member gave me a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s
2000 book The Tipping Point, knowing that I
admired Gladwell’s reporting for The New
magazine. (Gladwell cut his journalistic
teeth covering the AIDS epidemic for The Washington
in the late 1980s.) The Tipping Point looks
at how something that only a few people are thinking
about one day—say, the iPod, or “dignity
and respect” for gay people, or Brokeback
—suddenly morphs into something it seems
that everyone is embracing. Change, he writes, often
occurs like an epidemic: simmering away for months or
decades, then blanketing the nation.

Gladwell traces
some fascinating case studies—Sesame Street,
the drop in crime in New York City in the mid
1990s—and offers a number of smart suggestions
about what conditions are typically met before a
“tipping point,” the moment when a trend
becomes a phenomenon, when mere possibility becomes

The book’s
applications to the quest for LGBT equality are
self-evident. Take antigay discrimination, for
example: In the United States, at least, we’ve
passed the tipping point at which it became socially
unacceptable to discriminate against gays and
lesbians—in most situations. I’d guess
that it happened sometime soon after 1990, largely a result
of the years of increased visibility resulting from
the AIDS crisis. That and many decades of hard,
unheralded work, education, sacrifice, and protests by
countless thousands of activists.

The tipping
points for marriage equality, full parenting rights, and
fairness in the U.S. military remain ahead of us. But one of
these fundamental changes now seems within easy reach:
the end of “don’t ask, don’t
tell,” the policy that forbids gay and lesbian
service members from revealing their sexuality during
their tour of duty. Polls consistently show that
Americans overwhelmingly oppose the policy, and anecdotal
evidence suggests that most soldiers are unfazed by having
gays in the barracks. The last domino to fall will be
the military brass and the political allies of the
current commander in chief, all of whom cling to a
long-disproved myth about “unit cohesion”
that’s really just a thin veil for rank dislike
of homosexuals.

The efforts of
the LGBT veterans who are organizing the Call to Duty
tour, featured in this issue’s cover story and
beginning February 20, will push us closer to that
tipping point. They’re just what this debate
needs—proud, tough, gay models of military
dedication—and they’re taking their
stellar records and palpable love of the military directly
to the conservatives whose support we must have to
bring justice to our fighting forces.

Will they push us
past the tipping point? Can our nation’s need for
military readiness in Iraq, at home, and elsewhere overcome
the congressional majority’s general distaste
for doing anything that smacks of fairness for LGBT
Americans? When will the Joint Chiefs and the
president set aside their antiquated prejudices in order to
do what’s best for our armed forces and for our
country’s security? It will happen. There will
be a tipping point. But when?

On this point
Malcolm Gladwell can’t help us. He does a brilliant
job assessing past tipping points but can’t
create a model that will predict future change. No one
can. All we can do is keep up the pressure and know
that someday soon the truth will win out. And that future
generations will marvel that a ban ever existed at

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