by Col. Terrel S. Preston, USAF (Ret)
On September 20, 2011, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010” goes into effect for all U.S. military active duty, National Guard, and reserve personnel. This is truly an historic moment for gays and lesbians in America, and a colossal achievement by an army of activists across the country. What we’re celebrating on that Tuesday is a watershed event in the struggle for gay rights—a tribute to the American people’s resolve to eliminate the only Title 10 code that actually discriminated against an entire class of citizens.
The character of DADT was the key to its undoing. The toll: more than 14,000 service members discharged for doing nothing more than being who they are. It’s estimated that several times that number chose not to re-enlist due to the hostile climate generated by a draconian policy hatched by partisan politics and ignorance. But the real crime of DADT was the effect it had on the military’s psyche. Over the policy’s 17-year run, new recruits were told that, in the eyes of Congress, gays were second-class citizens and a danger to military readiness. Over time, that bigotry made less sense to the troops—half of whom are 18 to 22 years old, a demographic that now overwhelmingly supports equality. Ultimately, when the troops were surveyed last year in a desperate attempt to thwart the repeal, the vast majority favored scrapping the silly law.
DADT’s repeal will finally allow gays and lesbians to openly serve their country without fear of losing their careers because of who they love. Instead of constantly looking over their shoulders and pretending to be someone they’re not, they can concentrate on their military duties and perform at an even higher level, pursue their personal lives, and share stories about loved ones with their fellow warriors.
Repeal will also have some surprising effects. In the military, unit commanders desperately want equal opportunity and a level playing field for all of their troops. Commanders, who allowed discrimination under DADT, will now be compelled to protect every service member from discrimination or mistreatment, on or off base. Commanders are already voicing concerns about potential inequalities in housing, base access, and compensation for legally married gay spouses who, because of federal marriage laws, are not recognized as “dependents” eligible for the military benefits that straight spouses receive.
Commanders also have in their equal-opportunity arsenal the ability to make any discriminating local business or organization “off limits” to all personnel under their command. That’s a designation no business wants, and I dare say town governments and chambers of commerce will go to great lengths to avoid that scarlet letter of homophobia now that the military will be respecting and protecting its gay and lesbian personnel.
It’s indeed an interesting twist to see the institution that “fired more LGBT youth than any other employer,” according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, now become the protector and champion of equal rights and equal treatment for LGBT troops. That’s worth celebrating!
Col Terrel S. Preston is a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force where he served as pilot, operations analyst, and commander of three squadrons, including a provisional unit in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. Since retirement, he has served as a board member of Equality Texas, as a military advisor to SLDN, and as a project manager for the Human Rights Campaign in San Antonio and Houston.