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Will Gay Troops Get to Join the Debate About Their Own Service to America?

Without explicit protection, gay troops could be fired for sharing their views and experiences with senators and representatives, since current law calls for discharging anyone who says they are gay.
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Congressman Alcee Hastings, Democrat of Florida, has just introduced a bill with 27 co-sponsors to allow gay service members to testify openly at Congressional hearings about "don't ask, don't tell." Rep. Hastings authored the bill to ensure that the national debate will not be stacked against those most affected by the current gay ban. Without explicit protection, gay troops could be fired for sharing their views and experiences with senators and representatives, since current law calls for discharging anyone who says they are gay.

The bill, which also protects straight troops from retaliation for expressing views that might appear to undercut military policy, is needed for several reasons. Congressional hearings on "don't ask, don't tell," which were promised this fall, have been delayed, but are expected to happen next year. For too long, the national debate about gay service has centered not around those most affected by the gay ban, but around straight people, who are presumed to be so uncomfortable around gays that their discipline will be smashed if they're allowed to know the truth about their peers. Recent data show this ain't so. Three quarters of straight troops are "personally comfortable" around gays, and the majority of younger enlisted folks actually favor ending the gay ban. Yet, while most Americans think the ban is unfair and unnecessary, the nation still doesn't know the full extent of its costs, doesn't grasp the dire urgency of ending the ban. I've sought to chronicle many of these reasons elsewhere, but I am not an active duty gay soldier; how can any national debate about today's gay troops be healthy and robust if the very policy at issue bars those most affected from speaking up?

In an ideal world, Washington pols with the power to lift the ban would have done it by now. Literally decades of research, including by the military itself, shows that openly gay service works, and most of today's service members say they already know or suspect gays in their units. The only thing the gay ban does is perpetuate denial and repression, and waste the badly needed talents of thousands of American patriots.

Yet several efforts to soften or suspend "don't ask, don't tell," including a stop-loss order, a moratorium on discharges proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and a proposal by Rep. Hastings to de-fund the ban, have been blocked by Congressional leadership and the White House. Hopes for full legislative repeal are dimming as Congress procrastinates and sufficient votes in the Senate are far from secure.

Hearings, however, will be hard to drop entirely, as they have been promised by Democrats with the power to hold them. When they occur, lawmakers will need full information to fruitfully evaluate when and how to implement repeal. While veterans will be invited to testify, along with active duty military members if they are straight, current gay troops will be banned unless this bill goes through. Politicians routinely say they want to hear from those in the current military before deciding whether to support repeal. Shouldn't this include gay and lesbian troops?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said his office is seeking "more humane" and flexible ways to apply "don't ask, don't tell" by relaxing its enforcement. The Hastings bill would be wholly consistent with this effort, as letting gays speak openly before Congress would serve as the first official relaxation of the military ban in sixteen years.

In a dramatic round of 1993 Senate hearings, Lt. J.G. Tracy Thorne, an A-6 bombardier-navigator, stood up after months of venomous debate about gay Americans and said, "I am the person you have been talking about. My sexuality is part of me, but it is not all of me. Mr. Chairman, I am Lieutenant Junior Grade Tracy Thorne, and I am a red-blooded American. I am the member of a family, the son of a doctor from Mississippi and a mother from South Carolina, a member of the Methodist Church. I grew up in a small town in South Florida. I lived the all-American boy's life, going to school on weekdays and fishing on weekends." Thorne's commander stated that he was an "exemplary, hard-charging young lieutenant with great professional ability to do the job." But because he told the truth to America, a shipmate was ordered to climb a ladder with a rag and a can of paint thinner and wipe his name from the side of the jet he once flew to protect us. To utter this truth, Thorne had to lose his job, and the nation had to lose his service. Countless others who felt they couldn't afford to sacrifice their careers were forced to remain totally silent in a debate about their own futures. Will we do better this time?