Edward W. Brooke

The next civil rights battle

By Edward W. Brooke
June 22, 2010

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MILITARY SERVICE requires extraordinary sacrifice and love of country, and every man and woman in uniform deserves our respect and gratitude. However, the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy that bars openly gay and lesbian soldiers from serving in the military shows disrespect both for the individuals it targets and for the values our military was created to defend. It is a discriminatory law that must be repealed.

In the decades since I first took up the cause of civil rights, America has made measurable strides. We threw off Jim Crow; protected voting rights; increased access to housing and education; expanded opportunities for women and minorities; and most recently, taken steps toward extending equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans.

I had the opportunity to work on many of these civil rights issues as a US senator. In hindsight, these meaningful accomplishments might be regarded as inevitabilities, but these important steps were the result of hard work by black and white Americans in the face of powerful opposition. Civil rights progress doesn’t happen automatically or without resistance. History almost always obscures that fact, because after the battles are won it is difficult to understand why we needed to fight them in the first place. Laws change, and values change with them. I’m confident that repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ will be the same. A law believed to be necessary becomes a relic that the next generation finds curious and shameful.

Consider the fight to keep the military segregated. I served in a segregated Army unit from 1941 to 1946. Along with my fellow African American soldiers I served in the 366th Infantry, fought to protect Europe from tyranny, even while the Army was “protecting’’ white soldiers by preventing them from fighting, living, or fraternizing with their non-white compatriots. At that time, many Americans believed in the separation of the races at the expense of liberty. By today’s sensibilities, President Truman’s barrier-breaking order integrating the American military does not seem that remarkable. That is progress.

Now we have a law that forces gay and lesbian service members to hide who they are on penalty of discharge. Under the policy, the military is divided into soldiers who are judged solely on their merit, and those who can be condemned for a personal characteristic unrelated to their performance. We’ve been here before, and history shows that prejudice was the wrong policy.

I am not saying that the policy is like Jim Crow, nor arguing that gays and lesbians in our armed forces experience what African Americans did (with the exception of African Americans who are gay and lesbian). The point is that the ban is a weapon and expression of prejudice — no more excusable than any other discriminatory law.

Regardless of its target, prejudice is always the same. It finds novel expressions and capitalizes on new fears. But prejudice is never new and never right. One thing binds all prejudices together: irrational fear. Decades ago, black service members were the objects of this fear. Many thought that integrating black and white soldiers would harm the military and society. Today, we see that segregation itself was the threat to our values. We know that laws that elevate one class of people over another run counter to America’s ideals. Yet due to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’’ the very people who sacrifice the most to defend our values are subject to such a law. We owe them far more.

I am not persuaded by the argument that service members are not “ready’’ for repeal of the policy. Not unlike racial segregation of the armed forces, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’’ lends unwarranted deference to prejudice. Now, as then, we should confront and eliminate discrimination rather than preserve a law that fosters it.

The Senate is expected to take up repeal of the law in July. If I were still in the Senate, I would vote to show my respect for the sacrifices of all soldiers — gay and straight. Congress should repeal this legislation and score another victory of progress over prejudice.

Edward W. Brooke was a Republican US Senator from Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979 and the first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote.

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