May 26, 2010 in Opinion

Editorial: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ complexity a bad excuse


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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Remember the Missouri Compromise? The Compromise of 1850? Under those historic agreements, Congress and the nation limited some aspects of slavery, but only at the cost of preserving others.

What was compromised? Mostly the honor of a nation whose fundamental values argued for ending slavery, period.

The evil of slavery is clear enough today, but the nation is right back in the 19th century when it comes to equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens in such arenas as marriage and military service.

Word out of Washington, D.C., this week is that a compromise may have been reached in Congress on a way to repeal the 17-year-old law that permits gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces only if they lie about who they are. We know it as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The pending compromise is this: The Defense Authorization Act for 2011 will repeal the Clinton-era law, but the repeal won’t take effect until an indefinite time when the president, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all agree that the military is ready.

That might be late next year. Or not.

The idea is to give the Pentagon time to finish a review of the situation, including a plan for how to implement new policies.

What’s to implement?

Even after some 10,000 gays and lesbians have been discharged under “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” thousands more still serve proudly, if silently, and many with distinction.

But loyalty and distinction are no match for institutionalized bigotry, costing the nation the services of such exemplary officers as Col. Grethe Cammermeyer and Air Force Maj. Margaret Witt. Both Washington women’s celebrated cases resulted in measures of personal legal vindication, but systemic discrimination persists as stubbornly as slavery did in the antebellum South.

The American military shouldn’t need a meticulously crafted policy for tolerating honesty about sexual orientation. That’s likely to focus more attention on a factor that shouldn’t matter. Yes, there will be the predictable canards about deteriorating morale and shower-room anxiety, but Congress should ignore the distraction and do what’s right. We do not need to sharpen divisions; we need to eliminate them.

As the late political conservative and retired Air Force Gen. Barry Goldwater famously put it, it’s not whether you are straight that counts but whether you can shoot straight.

In time, the day will arrive when banning openly gay and lesbian citizens from military service will be a distant and embarrassing memory, just as slavery is. In the meantime, every day of ongoing discrimination is a violation of our national commitment to fairness and equal rights.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” should be repealed without delay.

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