Unlikely allies promote policy change

“Twenty years ago, the military were strong advocates of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ when I was secretary of defense,” Dick Cheney said last Sunday on ABC News, “I think things have changed significantly since then. I think the society has moved on. I think it’s partly a generational question.”

It’s time, he concluded, to reconsider the policy of firing gay men and women from the military if their sexual orientation becomes known. What? An issue Dick Cheney and Barack Obama agree on? And it’s gays in the military? When he presided over the Pentagon, Cheney kept in place an outright ban on homosexuals serving in America’s armed forces. The don’t-ask, don’t-tell rule came later, as a compromise between banning gays and permitting them to serve openly.

But Cheney is thankfully right that attitudes have changed since then. In a recent ABC News poll, 75 percent said they favored allowing homosexuals who “publicly disclose their sexual orientation” to serve, up from only 44 percent at the beginning of the Clinton administration. And Cheney is also right that young people are much more open to gay rights – especially gay marriage – than their elders. In the poll, two-thirds of those under 30 gave legalized marriage a thumbs up, compared with only 30 percent of seniors.

In criticizing Republicans who demonize homosexuals, our friend George Will recently joked that, to young people, being gay is “about as interesting as being left-handed.” That’s a little too glib. But even macho college fraternities are now taking in openly gay students. To many kids, it’s just not a big deal. They have grown up knowing gay people who have not tried to hide who they are.

And that makes a huge difference. In the ABC poll, 63 percent said they had a friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, and they’re much more likely to support equality than those who don’t. Vice President Cheney, for instance, caused an uproar in his party when he said states should decide whether to legalize gay marriage. Cheney’s view, he readily admitted, is shaped by the fact that he has a lesbian daughter. Of course it is. How could he look at her and her longtime partner and their two children and not feel differently from someone who has never known a loving homosexual couple?

What courage it has taken for many gays and lesbians to educate us all! Just by living and loving, not by demonstrating and demanding, they have managed to completely change the attitudes of a nation. Many have taken great risks personally and professionally by “coming out of the closet,” but they have bravely done so, making it possible for young homosexuals coming after them to face a far more tolerant society. Except in the military.

That doesn’t make sense to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who told a Senate Committee: “We have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.” Scrapping don’t ask, don’t tell, he insisted, is a matter of integrity, “theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”

Obama’s eager to deliver on his campaign promise to end the policy. And now with both Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying they’re ready to scuttle it as well, you would think it would be a done deal. Not so fast. Some members of Congress are balking at changing the law. Especially recalcitrant is Ike Skelton, the Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. He has warned that “serious problems” could result from “disruption” in the military.

Skelton and company ignore evidence from at least 30 countries, including most of the NATO allies and Israel, where openly gay men and women in the military haven’t damaged effectiveness and cohesion. But one influential voice in this debate has taken a lesson from “what other nations have done.” Colin Powell, the man who first held Mullen’s position under Clinton and argued strenuously against that president’s plan to integrate gays, is now ready to do it.

“In the almost 17 years since the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed,” the retired general said in a statement. He’s right. They’ve changed because men and women stood up and told the world that they – your friends, your children, your co-workers – are gay. So are your soldiers. With Powell and Cheney’s help, they may soon be able to say so.

Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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