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DADT Light at the End of the Tunnel

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As anniversaries go, a 17th is not typically considered all that special. Sure, it marks longevity in a relationship, or, in gay (read dog) years, it marks a very, very long time. But in the universe of momentous anniversaries to which we assign a certain emotional memory, a 17th is not all that memorable.

It is for me. This year marks 17 years ago that I came out at the 1993 March on Washington, having been the closeted 6th U.S. Army Soldier of the Year. Much like Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, Cmdr. Zoe Dunning, Lt. Tracy Thorne, Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, Cadet Joseph Steffan, and others before me, I sacrificed my military career almost two decades ago to speak out on the issue of whether gays and lesbians should serve openly in our armed forces. Ours was an attempt to influence the course of history vis-a-vis former president Bill Clinton's waffling on a presidential campaign promise he made to the LGBT community, which would have made him the first U.S. president to do anything to advance our cause. Beyond the pain advocates felt with the eventual enactment of the disgraceful "don't ask, don't tell" compromise, what ensued was the destruction of more than 13,000 military careers since 1993 -- which has had a profound effect on countless lives and has impacted the U.S. military in ways its leaders would rather not admit (e.g., losing service members in critical military specialties).

What makes this 17-year anniversary poignant for me is that at long last I see a light (or is it a flicker of light?) at the end of the tunnel. I am daring to hope -- despite the many cautionary signs and the tremendous challenges that lie ahead -- that at long last we may have turned the corner in our battle to honor the memories of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich (who came out as a gay airman in 1975) and other brave gay and lesbian veterans, while securing a better future for current and future gay and lesbian service members. How great it would be if next year, rather than reminisce about careers destroyed or worry about careers at risk, we could rejoice that our individual and collective efforts paid off. Seventeen-plus years of planning and plotting, pushing and prodding, asking and demanding; these years have been exhausting. And that exhaustion is more acute for those gay and lesbian service members, some waging war on foreign soil (as I was in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), who must serve their country in forced silence.

Dare we imagine that in 2010 our country will begin to redress a grave injustice against a minority of patriotic Americans whose only "disqualification" is loving someone of the same gender? The signs are good.

President Barack Obama has signaled his intention to repeal DADT. Defense secretary Robert Gates has reiterated the Obama administration's policy position on open service by gay men and lesbians in our armed forces. Legislation has been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has spoken of the inherent flaw in current U.S. policy: "We have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity: theirs as an individual, ours as an institution." And to that growing chorus of support for repeal have been joined the voices of no less than Gen. Ray Odierno (commanding general of U.S. Forces in Iraq) and his immediate predecessor, Gen. David Petraeus (now commanding general of the U.S. Central Command).

Much work remains ahead, and anyone who says otherwise is deluded by promises made that are too large to fulfill by words alone. Our opponents will stop at nothing to stymie our progress. Consider the congressional testimony of retired general John Sheehan, who claimed Dutch military leaders advised him that gay Dutch soldiers were partly to blame for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, or the recent Department of Justice brief that trotted out arguments made in the early 1990s in order to defend DADT. Thus, at this pivotal juncture in LGBT history, laying down our weapons (that is the power of our argument) at any point in this struggle and resting on the sidelines (or lapsing into complacency or, worse, apathy) will allow history to repeat itself in all its inglorious fashion. Our opponents are sharpening their arguments, and they are prepared to use their full arsenal of deceit and homophobia to see us fail.

Ours is the responsibility to demand of our leaders -- both national and community -- an unwavering commitment to win this battle by employing every available resource and tactic and deploying every available "soldier" -- indeed, we must all see ourselves as soldiers united against foes hell-bent on victory. We must also hold our leaders and, as important, ourselves accountable, because a mission without ultimate accountability is doomed from the outset. And we must recognize and take to heart what is at stake. If we fall short now, we risk losing not only the cause of open service for gays and lesbians in our armed forces, but an inevitable retreat from our broader LGBT civil rights agenda by friends and allies, not to mention a segment of our community, stunned by our defeat.

Some may read these words and think of me as "panicked," "defeatist," or "fatalist." Nothing could be further from the truth. However, we have for too long avoided the hard truth of what failure represents in any civil rights struggle, happy enough to accept the crumbs of human tolerance for our existence, and comfortable enough (at least in urban settings) to live our lives out loud in the presence of a more LGBT-friendly society. I am convinced that so long as we are realistic about our place in history, accepting of the heavy burden of securing our civil rights (a burden which falls squarely on our shoulders), and willing to do what it takes to effect change, we will prevail. So, as we commemorate DADT's odious 17th anniversary, here's hoping you and I can celebrate the first anniversary of our community's victory against DADT in the year ahead.

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