After the long years of the Bush administration, the United States needs to elect a president in 2008 who can inspire the nation and call upon us to be the best Americans we can be. In that light, I watched last week’s Republican presidential debate with special interest. The moment in the debate I found most revealing, most distressing, was when the moderator asked the ten Republican candidates to raise their hand if they believe gay and lesbian Americans should be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces of the United States. Not one of them raised his hand.
At a time when our military is desperate to recruit qualified men and women, when more than eighty percent of Americans oppose discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and when our national security depends on our international credibility as a nation dedicated to the values of tolerance, religious liberty, individual dignity, and equal justice, it is deplorable that candidates for the office of president still embrace and defend a policy that both excludes tens of thousands of qualified Americans from military service and denies patriotic gays and lesbians the right to serve their country unless they deny who they are, lie about their identity, and return to the darkness of the closet.
That sorrowful and degrading moment in the Republican presidential debate called to mind an earlier generation of American “leaders”: the generation of Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett, and Strom Thurmond. Exactly half-a-century ago, Governor Faubus expressed his conception of “American values” by calling out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African-American children from entering Little Rock’s Central High School.
Several years later, Governor Ross Barnett rose to power in Mississippi by proclaiming that “the Negro is different because God made him different to punish him.” A fierce defender of “American values,” Barnett ferociously opposed James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi, promising in 1962 that Mississippi would never “surrender to the evil . . . forces of tyranny.”
Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina came to national prominence when he stormed out of the 1948 Democratic National Convention after the party endorsed civil rights for African-Americans. Thurmond declared that he would never “admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” Racial segregation, he added, was red-white-and-blue American, for it was “honest, open and aboveboard.”
I don’t know whether John McCain, Rudy Guiliani, Mitt Romney and the other Republican presidential candidates agree with General Peter Pace, who recently opined that gays should not be allowed to serve openly in the military because homosexuals are “immoral.” Perhaps McCain, Guiliani, Romney, et al. don’t share that belief. Perhaps they are merely pandering to the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party. I’m not sure which is worse: a presidential candidate who sincerely holds beliefs forged at a time when men burned witches or a presidential candidate who is thoughtful and decent enough to know that such beliefs have no place in American society, but who is nevertheless so cynical that he is willing to endanger the nation and endorse indecency in order to mollify those extremists who still hold such beliefs.
I recognize, of course, that not everyone accepts the moral analogy between discrimination against blacks and discrimination against gays. But those who fail to see the power of that analogy have simply blinded themselves to reason, in the same way that Strom Thurmond, Ross Barnett, and Orval Faubus blinded themselves (or pretended to be blind) to the moral connections between slavery, racial discrimination, and "separate but equal."
Like racial, gender, age, disability, religious, and ethnic discrimination, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is grounded in ignorance, intolerance, and immorality. It is a deeply irrational policy that has no more place in American law than a rule forbidding Mormons, Italians, Aquarians, or people born on Friday the 13th from serving openly in the military. Of course, there are those who thump their bibles and proclaim that their condemnation of homosexuality is rooted in their religious faiths. That may be so. But that is not a <em>legitimate</em> basis for making public policy in the United States.
This nation is dedicated to the proposition that we are all “created equal.” It embraces and celebrates the principles that we are all endowed with certain “inalienable rights,” that we are all entitled to “equal protection of the laws,” and that we are all deserving of equal dignity and respect. We do not always live up to those commitments, but the history of our nation is one of progress toward a more tolerant, more open, more reasoned society. It is a source of righteous pride that we Americans have overcome many of the prejudices, hatreds, and fears of those who came before us.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not a policy that reflects true “American values.” Like “separate but equal,” it was, at best, a transitional compromise with bigotry. Perhaps, for a time, it was a necessary evil. But by failing now to condemn that policy, the Republican presidential candidates have shamed themselves, their party, and their nation. And they are on the wrong side of history.