Scroll To Top

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 Yorker magazine. (Gladwell cut his journalistic teeth covering the AIDS epidemic for The Washington Post 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 Mountain--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 reality.

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 all.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories Editors