Derrick Z. Jackson

The military’s evolution on gays

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / February 27, 2010

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JOINT CHIEFS of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen proved that his recent support for openly gay and lesbian soldiers was no fluke. Earlier this month he said that ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy was the “right thing to do.’’ Mullen said he was “troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie.’’

Last week, Mullen reiterated his views to a soldier at a military town hall who asked about the policy. He intimated that soldiers no longer fret about this issue, saying it was the fourth town hall he has done and the first time that anybody asked him about it. Mullen reasserted that he has served with gay soldiers since 1968. He said the feedback he has received from countries where openly gay and lesbian soldiers serve is that “there just wasn’t that much impact after the policy got changed.’’

This continues the reversal of 17 years ago, when President Clinton said letting openly gay and lesbian soldiers serve was the right thing to do, but was shouted down by the military, including then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell. More than 14,000 gay and lesbian soldiers were discharged after they were outed or admitted their sexual orientation.

The shouts of paranoia have largely grown, with the exception of gay marriage, into quiet American acceptance of gay and lesbian workmates. A new Pew poll found that support for letting openly gay and lesbian soldiers serve has grown from a margin of 7 percentage points in 1994 (52-45) to a margin of 34 percentage points today (61-27). That is more than 2-to-1 support.

No demographic group reached 50 percent opposition and even among the most opposed groups, 41 percent of white evangelicals and 40 percent of conservative Republicans support military service of open homosexuals. Both white and black Americans voiced 61 percent support. In nice symmetry, America grew racially to elect its first African-American president and that president is the one who has begun the dismantling of “don’t ask.’’

To be sure, “go slow’’ sentiment remains strong as the individual commanders of the Marines, the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force all voiced concern on Capitol Hill this week about ending “don’t ask’’ while we are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But much more telling, they all endorsed the Pentagon review of the policy, initiated by President Obama. They know the end of the policy is near, particularly when White House national security adviser, General James Jones, who formerly thought “don’t ask’’ was working just fine, recently told CNN that fears of gay integration, similar to past fears of racial and gender integration, “will probably prove itself to be false as well.’’

Colin Powell supports reviewing the ban, saying “attitudes and circumstances have changed.’’ Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who otherwise is a Scrooge to all things Obama, but has a soft heart on gay issues with an openly gay daughter, recently said, “Society has moved on . . . When the chiefs come forward and say, ‘We think we can do it,’ then it strikes me that it’s time to reconsider the policy.’’

Iraq and Afghanistan US military commander General David Petraeus this week acknowledged that the openly gay policies of the militaries of the United Kingdom, Israel “or, indeed in our own CIA and FBI’’ have been “uneventful.’’ Asked if he thought soldiers care if their fellow soldiers are gay or lesbian, Petraeus responded that what matters is skill. “I served in fact in combat with individuals who were gay and who were lesbian in combat situations,’’ Petraeus said, “and, frankly, you know over time you said, ‘Hey, how’s this guy shooting?’ or ‘How is her analysis?’ or what have you.’’

While “don’t ask’’ is not yet dead, the burial is in sight. This is no longer your 1993 military waving the white flag at paranoia. America is deciding that soldiers are not to be judged by their sexual orientation, but by their character on the battlefield.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.comm.

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