Saturday, December 18, 2010

DADT in Perspective: Franklin Kameny Looks Back at the Gay Military Ban

Today's long-awaited vote in the U.S. Senate to repeal the policy known colloquially as "Don't Ask Don't Tell" was the culmination of years of effort by gay Americans and their allies who have opposed overt discrimination by the government on the basis of sexual orientation.

The vote was made sweeter by the fact that, in both the House of Representatives earlier this week and the Senate today, the vote was truly bipartisan. In the House, for instance, prominent Republicans such as the ranking member (and incoming chair) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) voted for repeal, as did Ron Paul of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona. In the Senate, the newest GOP member, Mark Kirk of Illinois, joined with Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and several other Republican colleagues to overturn the ban on openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

Franklin Kameny in Washington on May 5, 2010
For many people, especially those born in the last decade of the 20th century, the idea of ending the ban on openly gay and lesbian Americans serving in the armed forces may seem to be a new one. Even older Americans may not have become aware of the issue any earlier than 1993, when Bill Clinton tried to end the ban but ended up signing the law that made it permanent.

The fact is, not only the ban but attempts to end it go back much farther than the early 1990s.

On May 5, I interviewed Franklin Kameny, one of the pioneers of the modern gay rights movement, at the National Press Club in Washington.

Kameny, who celebrated his 85th birthday on May 21, cautioned, first, that we must “keep in mind” that the gay ban “became statutory law in ’93 [but] has been military policy for very, very, very much longer than that. You can arguably bring it all the way back to 1778 and George Washington.”

Kameny encountered the gay ban for the first time during World War II, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

“I personally ran into [the ban] on May 18, 1943, when a few days before my 18th birthday, I enlisted in the Army at the height of World War II,” Kameny said. “They asked; I didn’t tell, even though as a healthy, vigorous teenager there were things to tell. (Not terribly much, it was a different era in all kinds of ways.)”

Kameny added: “I have resented for 67 years that I had to lie in order to serve in a war effort that I strongly supported. I did serve and I saw combat in Europe.”

In 1957, Kameny – a Harvard-educated physicist and astronomer – was fired from his job with the Army Mapping Service because he was gay. He spent the next several decades in temporary jobs because he was unable to get a security clearance to do what he was trained to do. In fact, he said, there were some months when had only 20 cents to spend per day on food. (The story of Kameny's life during this period is told well by historian David K. Johnson in his 2004 book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.)

By 1961, however, he began to get involved in the then-fledgling gay rights movement, founding the Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society and setting the stage for pre-Stonewall activism.

One of the first issues he and his colleagues tackled was the military gay ban.

“We picketed against it starting in ’65 both in front of the White House and at the Pentagon, and at the Pentagon again in ’66,” demonstrating, he said, “specifically against the exclusionary policy.”

The issue also came up in 1971, when Kameny was the first openly gay person to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (He ran for position of Delegate from the District of Columbia, a slot now filled by Eleanor Holmes Norton.)

“In the course of all that, I was campaigning on two different fronts,” Kameny explained. “One was purely on District issues; if you’re going to run for Congress in the District [of Columbia] you have to be an expert on trash collection and everything else.

“But also,” he continued, he was running “as a gay activist,” so that in the later part of the campaign, he held “a press conference in or near the office of the Secretary of the Army, and I met with him or somebody in his staff ... in connection with the gay ban.”

Two decades later, “in ’93, it became law, which completely changed the politics entirely.”

Now, 17 years after the Clinton-era policy was instituted, the politics have changed again, by 180 degrees.  Bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the national legislature, following the majorities indicated by public-opinion polls among U.S. voters, have decided the anti-gay policy must be rejected.  The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have both argued in favor of repealing DADT, as the policy has come to be known.  The President has promised to sign the bill.

I am confident that the vast majority of members of our armed services are mature enough to treat this change in personnel policy with integrity and professionalism.  Defenders of DADT have for years shown a poor opinion of enlisted men and women, in particular, asserting that they would be unable to work side-by-side with openly gay comrades because of inchoate prejudice. 

A post-DADT military will prove them wrong, just as the naysayers were proven wrong after President Truman ordered the end to racial segregation in the military.

Credit is due to the many gay and lesbian veterans who worked hard to see this legislation get passed.  Not least of those are the World War II veterans like Frank Kameny who easily could have chosen to do something else with their time besides lobbying Congress.  Today is a great day for America.

(This article is adapted from an earlier piece published on on May 30, 2010.)

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!
Follow my tweets on Twitter! 

No comments: