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Gay Americans Seek Change Beyond End of Military Ban

A member of the audience hugs President Barack Obama at the Interior Department in Washington after he signed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal legislation that would allow gays to serve openly in the military, 22 Dec 2010
A member of the audience hugs President Barack Obama at the Interior Department in Washington after he signed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal legislation that would allow gays to serve openly in the military, 22 Dec 2010

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Michael Bowman

Ending the U.S. military's ban on openly gay service is one of several goals put forth by homosexuals as well as a growing number of heterosexuals who embrace equal rights for gay people.  Observers say the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" could have a ripple effect on battles surrounding same-sex marriage, and accelerate polling trends that show increasing acceptance of gay people by society at large.

Moments after Saturday's vote repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," senators of both parties lauded gay troops for their service and sacrifice.

"I want to thank all of the gay men and women that are fighting for us today in Afghanistan and in Iraq.  We honor your service, and now we can do so openly," said Republican Susan Collins of Maine.

Gay service members targeted under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" speak of repeal as a cathartic and healing event.  Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach flew combat missions over Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and was hand-picked to patrol the skies over Washington on September 11, 2001.

"I felt like a second-class citizen [under the policy], and I think today is a great day, and not just for gay Americans.  It is a great day for the country and the military as a whole," said Fehrenbach.  "I feel like more of an American today, and I feel prouder of my country than I have in years."

Although far from pleased, even staunch repeal opponents acknowledge the societal implications of allowing openly-gay service.  Retired Army Colonel Robert Maginnis speaks on military affairs for the Family Research Council, which lobbies against the expansion of gay rights.

"This [repeal] is Congress' stamp of approval of homosexuality," said Maginnis.  "I think the courts will pay attention to that, and I think the broader culture will pay attention to that."

Gay rights battles extend beyond military service.  Many gay Americans also seek the right to civil marriage, which is currently allowed in only a handful of states and the nation's capital, and is not recognized at the federal level.  Exclusion from marriage denies gay couples many benefits their heterosexual peers take for granted, from joint tax-filing privileges to survivorship rights for Social Security benefits.

Lower federal courts have found the U.S. law preventing recognition of same-sex marriage unconstitutional.  Another federal court has similarly ruled against a California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage.  These cases are being appealed, and are expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Georgetown University law professor Nan Hunter says the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will not go unnoticed by judges and justices deciding other gay rights issues.

"This particular change will have a big impact, because there has historically been so much symbolism associated with military service, and concepts of citizenship and responsibility," noted Hunter.

Hunter adds that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to judicial decisions.

"It does not mean that a judge is going to say, 'Gosh, the Senate repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, so let's rule this way,'" Hunter explained.  "That is not the way it works.  But unquestionably the old days of being able to assume that gay people are immoral and therefore entitled to less protection [under the law] - those days are over."

Public-opinion polls show an evolution towards greater acceptance of homosexuality and gay people. Pew Research Center survey director Scott Keeter says young Americans are the most supportive of gay rights.

"What is happening is every new generation that comes along is more tolerant, more accepting, more comfortable with this kind of diversity," said Keeter.

Keeter thinks gay people's increasing willingness to be open and honest about their sexuality has had a huge impact on public perceptions.

"Many more people today than in the past say they know someone who is gay or lesbian, that they have a close friend or family member who is gay," added Keeter.  "And that has had the effect of dispelling stereotypes and making people more comfortable."

Keeter notes that conservative opposition to repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been muted compared to the furious, polarized debate surrounding same-sex marriage.  Keeter says it is possible that gay rights have lost potency as political wedge issues or that military service does not evoke the same passions as the institution of marriage or that U.S. preoccupations about economic matters have crowded divisive social issues out of the national spotlight.  

Whatever the political backdrop, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is unquestionably a watershed event for gay rights in America.  Some see it as a landmark event for civil rights overall.

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