Is this the moment when we end the policy preventing lesbians and gay men from serving openly in the U.S. military? The recent statement by the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff makes it seem like we are on the precipice of change. He framed the change in terms of when, not if, it will happen. To think about whether this policy change is possible in the current political climate, it is important to remember why this move didn’t work in 1992.
In the first year of the Clinton presidency, the policy to eliminate the exclusion of gay men and lesbians from the military was one of the first battles that Republicans waged against Clinton. It was a collaborative effort on the part of inflluential religious right activists, Republican party officials, and military leaders (I recognize these are not mutually exclusive categories). A big effort was mobilized to hand Clinton a loss on what should have been a rather simple policy change via executive order. By focusing a great deal of attention on this policy, which was nowhere near the top of Clinton’s priorities, the right was able not only to prevent this policy, but to accomplish larger political goals of limiting Clinton’s influence on other issues as well.
The policy result was the disastrous compromise, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue,” that we are stuck with currently. Disastrous not only because it failed to protect lesbians and gay men in the military–nearly 10,000 people have been discharged under this law–but also because it allows for the harassment of lesbians and gay men while serving.
But whether we can get rid of this policy depends on whether Republicans and the religious right will take up the fight against policy change again. Since all the fuss over same-sex marriage, since the divisive debates over health care, and especially since the dramatic changes in public opinion over lesbian and gay rights in general, will this be worth the right’s effort to take on?
My own guess is that I doubt this will be the issue that Republicans tackle right now, that they will let the policy change slip past without much meaningful fight, and then use the policy change to demonize the President and Democrats later on as über-liberals. Which means that I agree with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, it is just a matter of time, and I would guess, not much time at all.