Sunday, December 19, 2010

Glad to See DADT Gone, But the Underlying Bigotry Remains

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Don't Ask, Don't Tell has been repealed (once President Obama signs the bill). Finally. We are a better, stronger, safer country than we were before the vote. But let's not break our arms patting ourselves on the back.

Why am I so grumpy? No, it's not because I'm Scrooge. (By the way, Happy Holidays to everyone, and yes, I do mean "Happy Holidays." Unlike the systematic discrimination against gays and lesbians allowed by Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I prefer to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone celebrates any given holiday in December. So let the "War on Christmas" bull begin.)

I'm grumpy because the positive aspects of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal pale in comparison to the problems that still surround the larger issue of how we treat gays and lesbians, especially when you consider how long it took for the repeal to arrive, and how much garbage had to be endured to get there.

Even with the repeal, it seems like it's still acceptable in some circles to openly disparage gays and lesbians, in a way that would not be tolerated with religious, ethnic or racial groups. For example, John McCain, in defending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, said, "I think [our troops are] mature enough to make a judgment on who they want to serve with and the impact on their battle effectiveness."

What if McCain legitimized the choice of not wanting to serve with African Americans? Or Jews? Or Latinos? Would his statement be deemed acceptable? Of course not. He would have been the subject of widespread condemination. So why is it okay with gays and lesbians? It's not. The only difference is that we, as a society, allow bigotry against gays and lesbians that we once allowed against African Americans, Jews and other minorities.

(Not to mention that the troops said in a survey that they didn't mind serving alongside openly gay colleagues.)

I've been doing a lot of reading in the last few months about the first half of the 20th century, especially the period from the early 1930s to the late 1950s. Obviously, there is a lot to be proud of during that era, especially how the country mobilized to win World War II. But the era also featured some shameful and mind-blowing actions by the U.S. and its citizens that make you wonder how we didn't learn our lesson about oppressing a minority people. From sending Japanese Americans to internment camps to the outrageous mistreatment of African Americans, especially those serving our country in the armed forces, we did things that would make even the modern day Tea Party blush (well, maybe not ... we have our birthers).

So why are we allowing oppression now with gays and lesbians? We have public debates over gay marriage in the way we once argued over miscegenation. The bullying of gay teens also has echoes in past treatment of minorities in this country.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell seems to follow our pattern: We get where we should be, but only after condoning shameful behavior for too long. (Tell me you can't imagine a teenager in 2050, struggling to comprehend what he is hearing, saying to his father, "Wait, we kicked qualified people out of the armed forces while we were in two wars because they were gay? Are you kidding me? Why?" Just as a teenager today would not be able to understand that African Americans were not only separated from white soldiers during World War II, but were often treated worse than some German prisoners of war, for example, in being denied access to food and entertainment enjoyed by whites.)

It's telling that when I expressed my sentiments about the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal on my Facebook page, a commenter wrote that it was nice to see such a response coming from someone who is straight. I completely understand her reaction, but it's a shame that she had to feel that way. Gay or straight, every American who cares about the basic American value of equal treatment under the law should oppose the oppression of any minority, whether a member of that group or not.

We may have won the battle over Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but it seems to me there is a lot left to do on the bigger question of how we, as a country, treat people we perceive as different.

I think a big part of the problem is the right-wing propaganda machine, which creates an environment in which intolerance can flourish. In my reading about the 1930s, I was struck by how the era had its version of both Rush Limbaugh (the hateful, racist, anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin) and Glenn Beck (the snake oil salesman turned snake oil salesman/radio mogul John Brinkley). (Bruce Lenthall's "Radio's America: The Great Depression and the Rise of the Mass Culture" has a great chapter on Coughlin and Brinkley.) It occurred to me that while the popularity of these divisive figures eventually waned, it might have been different if they had the support of an organized, right-wing propaganda infrastructure as exists today. (By now, you've all probably read the study that shows that Fox News is successful in meeting its goal of disseminating misinformation, as its viewers are epically uninformed on the facts of the day. Similarly, Paul Krugman's column on Friday noted that the Republicans on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission voted to exclude the terms “deregulation,” “shadow banking,” “interconnection,” and “Wall Street” from the commission's report, insisting on the inclusion of "facts" that are not, in fact, true. More evidence that the right wing has successfully built a structure of its own "facts" that are at odds with reality.)

So you'll forgive me if I'm not risking spraining my ankle jumping for joy over a Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal that is 17 years too late (it should have never been adopted) and took overcoming GOP filibusters and entrenched opposition to be achieved. (I hope you can handle the fact that McCain thinks it was a "sad day," even as he once supported the repeal if the military leaders supported it, which they now do.)

To me, the story isn't how enlightened we are to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country, but rather how, yet again, we were slow to stop oppressing a group because its members are perceived as different. And we continue to allow mistreatment of gays and lesbians in a way that would be viewed as unacceptable for racial, religious and ethnic minorities. It reminds me that we seemed to learn nothing from our abhorrent institutional treatment of African Americans, Japanese-Americans and others in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

I'm overjoyed that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is dead. But I can't help but find more bad than good associated with its repeal.