After Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Meaning of Repeal to America

"Don't ask, don't tell" -- the policy and even the mere phrase -- says much about who we are as Americans. What we do in its wake will help shape what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century -- well beyond the rise and fall of this bizarre and convoluted law.
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Today marks the official end of the eighteen-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy and, in a sense, the end of a 233-year-old American shame, as formal anti-gay discrimination in our armed forces is older than the nation itself. As someone who worked to end this policy for more than a decade, I will join with countless other advocates of equality in celebrating this day as a watershed in our nation's long march toward justice.

Yet it's critical that we not rest on our laurels. Some of the most troubling instincts that lay behind this odious law remain a threat to the freedoms not only of gay people but of every American. My fear as I celebrate the passing of the military's anti-gay exclusion, along with other gains in gay rights, is that these victories may sap the energy that still has the best shot at fighting not only discrimination, but other base instincts in American life that continue to hold us back from reaching our greatest potential.

What do I mean by this? What are the attitudes and beliefs that propped up the gay ban and threaten to continue their infection of American freedom?

First, let me be clear that I have no intention of dampening a day that is rightly a moment of profound pride for our country. And so let me mention a few reasons why I joined this fight and why this day is so historic.

One of the marks of equal citizenship is the ability not just to enjoy the benefits of one's country but to give back to it. As in any relationship, citizenship means give and take. But one of the most insidious -- and effective -- dimensions of the gay ban was that it deprived the world of witnessing gay people giving back, serving their country, exhibiting the same valor and self-sacrifice as their peers. That's why the right wing fixated on gays in the military -- because if the world could see that gay men and women were proud, effective warriors, and were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, it would shatter the careful apparatus of myths they'd spent generations creating, the fiction that said gay people were only interested in their own pleasure and not, in equal parts to everyone else, in the noble effort to serve the greater good. It would shatter the myth that gay people are incapable of self-sacrifice and unworthy of first-class citizenship.

The image of two gay soldiers who -- like straight soldiers -- may even form a happy, healthy couple, striding confidently across the grounds of a U.S. military base, causing no harm but no longer needing to hide, is bound to further retire that myth, to help bring the U.S. military and our society at-large, more fully into the twenty-first century. Two hundred and thirty-three years of having to hide who they are in order to serve ends today.

It was also not always appreciated just what needless, harrowing damage this policy caused to LGBT service members and to the military more broadly: the need to hide who you are to those who are supposed to be your brothers and sisters; the constant threat of punishment, harassment and discharge; the daily indignities of serving an institution that deemed you too shameful to serve honestly; and the loss of critical talent that resulted from firing highly competent troops for something totally unrelated to performance. America invented modern meritocracy and made a mockery of it every time it placed prejudice over fairness. The world watches us as a beacon, as the Puritans liked to say, and in recent years, we have often failed to be the model of democracy so many have sought. Today we hope they're looking a little bit closer.

Now, the challenges ahead. For starters, the change in law does not go far enough. It does not ban discrimination, but merely ends the policy of firing those who are found to be gay. It does not include a mechanism to formally redress the grievances of those who suffer from discrimination. Same-sex couples remain second-class patriots, as federal law will continue to deny them numerous benefits and protections given to their heterosexual peers. Reinstatement and back pay issues must still be resolved. The Uniform Code of Military Justice remains unchanged, making all kinds of non-missionary sex, along with adultery, into jailable offenses. And, unconscionably, the change in law does not alter the fact that transgender service members still cannot serve in uniform.

But in addition to the ongoing policy reform that's still needed, there is an underlying cultural issue -- an ailment of the American psyche -- that's propped up this policy and other prejudices for far too long. "Don't ask, don't tell" was sustained by a foundation not only of anti-gay sentiment but of denial, the long, sad American tradition of repressing unacceptable -- or unrespectable -- feelings. After all, this policy was not, like other forms of discrimination, about hording resources or seeking status so much as about restricting knowledge in an effort to control behavior. The policy, at least on its surface, did not exclude people but denied knowledge of their existence, removing them only when they (or, as was often the case, a third party) punctured the shared fiction that they did not exist. It was a policy that said gay people could be good soldiers and could die for their country, but homosexuality was so shameful and threatening that it was, quite literally, unspeakable. It was a policy of collective denial in which a nation, through its laws, expressed a belief that the Enlightenment ideal of genuine freedom through self-knowledge and self-government was a charade, and that what was really needed to maintain stability and cohesion was ignorance, the repression of any knowledge about difference, especially sexual difference.

The LGBT rights movement has historically taken aim not only at legal inequality but at this heritage of repression in the American psyche that has kept ordinary people from confronting and accepting their own feelings when those feelings are taboo. This, of course, is the full meaning of the word, "homophobia," a word which denotes not just dislike of gay people, but fear of one's own inner workings, a discomfort with desire, sexuality, difference and anything that challenges norms.

This is why "don't ask, don't tell" was so insidious: it mocked the Enlightenment's promise that people were capable of self-mastery through self-knowledge, opting instead for a restricted and impoverished vision of social order that relies on burying our feelings in hopes of keeping their chimerical threats at bay. Indeed, the radical contribution of America's founders was the ideal that, in a democracy, where ordinary people were given extraordinary freedom, those people could exercise the moral autonomy to govern their desires and passions without having to pretend they didn't exist in order to behave.

For years, gay people have been painted as inherently unable to control their desires. Never mind that same-sex desire is not something that should need to be controlled in the first place. The myth of the oversexed gay bogeyman was, in fact, a ruse to disown feelings that are really shared by everyone. Far easier to define others as intrinsically uncontrollable than to confront your own vulnerability to temptation, whatever that may be. And messy, unrespectable feelings dwell in us all. When we refuse to confront that side of ourselves, we're left with a shell of repression, with the kinds of consequences we've seen not only under "don't ask, don't tell" but also in the revelations of the secret and destructive double lives of too many governors, lawmakers, pastors, and -- to be sure -- millions of ordinary people.

The alternative to confronting our true selves is to pretend that our less respectable drives don't exist, or to create a fiction that only other people have them. This means cruelty to our chosen scapegoats and, equally harmful, the abdication of responsibility for our own feelings and acts. The deadly recipe locks inequality -- of all kinds -- into place.

From Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King, Jr. and beyond, our nation's most brilliant and passionate advocates for freedom have taught us that discrimination's victims are not only its targets but its perpetrators. As a slaveholder, Jefferson was well-positioned to inveigh against the harm wrought to the master's soul by the unrestrained greed of slavery (which rightly earned him charges of high hypocrisy). One of King's greatest intellectual contributions to our understanding of American freedom was that integration liberated not only African Americans but segregationists and indeed an entire country. It did this by changing a political and economic system that had held itself back by summarily disqualifying some of its best talent, but also by changing people's insides -- by repairing psyches where needless hatred, anger, repression and a false sense of superiority had been allowed to fester.

The passing of "don't ask, don't tell" is a victory for all Americans. But it's not the end of the line. "Don't ask, don't tell" -- the policy and even the mere phrase -- says much about who we are as Americans. What we do in its wake will help shape what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century -- well beyond the rise and fall of this bizarre and convoluted law. As we bury this policy, we must ask if we've learned anything from its many failures. What its history suggests is how far we, as a culture, have yet to go in achieving a vision of democratic freedom marked by genuine moral autonomy, one which does not rely on collective fictions -- about sexuality or about anything else -- to function.

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