The Arc Of History


My mind and heart are full of cascading thoughts and feelings today. For the most part, I think of the past, and the countless gay men and lesbians who have served their country with honor over the decades and centuries. Today is their day as much as it is that of the current gay servicemembers. They form a brigade through time that has finally marched into the open clearing of equal dignity.

Yes, the path of gay soldiers is unlike that of, say, African-American soldiers. Unlike the brutal exclusion and then segregation of African-Americans, gay soldiers were always in the ranks, just in a near-invisible cage of mandatory dishonesty and involuntary fear. But the impact of the emancipation into full and proud members of the military is as deep as for any other group of Americans. It means, as it did for the first black soldiers who fought for the union, that this country is truly theirs' for the first time - because they have finally been allowed to fight and die for it without lying about who they are. They have been relieved of the burden of mandatory shame. Only those who have labored under such crushing psychic pressure can know how truly liberating this feels.

It's been more than three decades since Leonard Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time magazine. It's been more than two decades since this struggle began to reach the realm of political possibility. From the painful non-compromise of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", through the big increase in discharges under president Clinton, via the wars and civil marriage breakthroughs of the first decade of the 21st Century to the calm and reasoned Pentagon report of December 2010, the path has been uneven. We need to remember this. We need to remember constantly that any civil rights movement will be beset with reversals, with dark periods, with moments when the intensity of the despair breaks the hardiest of souls.

But we should also note that what won in the end was facts and testimony and truth. There is no rational basis to keep qualified and dedicated gays from serving in the military. It was confidence in this truth - not assertion of any special identity or special rights - that carried us forward. And the revelation of the actual lives and records of gay servicemembers - all of whom came out of the closet and risked their livelihoods to testify to the truth - has sunk in widely and deeply. These men and women had the courage to serve their country and then the courage to risk their careers, promotions, pensions, salaries and, in some cases, lives to bring this day about. They represent an often silent majority of gay men and women who simply want to belong to the families and country and churches and communities they love, and to contribute to them without having to lie about themselves. This, in the end, was not about the right to be gay, but the right to serve America. Like all great civil rights movements, it is in the end about giving, not taking.

This Luckovich cartoon says so much so powerfully:


And this points to a deeper truth. What the gay rights movement should, in my view, be about is not the creation of a separate, protected class of victims. It should be about enlarging the circle of human freedom so that there are no excuses left, no classes of pre-ordained victims, just individual citizens living different lives with no group-based discrimination.

This does not deny the uniqueness of different cultures, the value of a distinct minority, the differentness of race and gender and orientation and religion and geography. It merely says that politics should be indifferent to this cacophony of voices and carnival of color. Politics should merely address those core civil inequalities that keep groups separate, alien and mutually suspicious. By removing the bar on military service and the bar on marriage, the gay rights movement is, slowly, increasingly, making America more whole and the gay rights movement obsolete.

I long for that day. But I will always cherish this one.