Slow and Steady
While I entirely buy the premise that the time is always right to do what's right, I'll admit thinking that the complaints of liberals over President Obama's evident unwillingness to issue an executive order ending the ban on gay Americans serving openly in the armed forces are both naive and a bit hypocritical. The hypocrisy has to do with the fact that we didn't much like it when President Bush did most anything by diktat; the naivete is an unwillingness to face the reality that when you're pushing a cultural (I guess in this case, subcultural) change of some significance, there will be tension and potential or actual conflict. On a human or political level, I can't imagine a worse outcome than Obama or any perceived liberal Democrat ordering an end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and then some Army unit beating the hell out of or, God forbid, killing a known or suspected gay soldier. A conversation I had last summer with a former Marine of unquestionable liberal views suggested that this was all too real a possibility if the change came too quickly.
So the news earlier this week that the administration and top military brass are moving forward on repealing that odious policy was welcome indeed--arguably it was the first good news we've heard in public life in 2010--and I wasn't troubled by the caveat that it might take a year or so. The key element will be to manage the change, preparing servicemen and servicewomen for the possibility of a gay comrade. The hierarchical nature of the military probably makes this slightly easier than it might be in other walks of life. That the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs characterized repeal as "the right thing to do," joining the civilian president and secretary of defense, is very encouraging in this regard.
As it happens, I think that allowing gay soldiers to serve openly not only will prove much ado about nothing in terms of peoples' fears on the question, but could represent a huge step forward in finishing the job of normalizing homosexual orientation in our society. Certainly it doesn't seem to be a major issue for some of our most culturally similar allies. But perhaps more to the point, there's nothing like direct experience and proximity, particularly under stressful conditions, to break down walls of misunderstanding and dispel myths. Support for same-sex marriage is sharply higher among people who actually know gay folks (or rather, I should say, know they know gay folks). Once the utter sameness of newly out gay soldiers is evident to all, a lot of straights mustering out are likely go home and spread the word that the fear and animosity toward gays they might have grown up in is groundless. At that point, it'll be much more difficult to maintain the other vestiges of legal bias on grounds of sexual orientation.