Thoughts on DADT’s demise

I have a piece at The American Prospect about the demise of “don’t ask, don’t tell”:

For all the sad stories of gay service members who’ve been victims of this institutionalized discrimination, the fight over DADT has been about more than just gays in the military (who, by some estimates, already make up 2 percent of active service members). The true fight has been about what it means to say, “I am gay” — whether the affirmation is cause for social — and in the military, literal — ostracism and exclusion or whether it’s a neutral means of describing yourself. As with the fight over the term “marriage” — which is what was at stake in the Prop. 8 battle in California — the ability to say you’re gay without reprisal is really about the normalization of homosexuality.

As Judge Virginia Phillips noted in striking down the law this past September, for all the talk about “homosexual behavior” and the comfort of straight soldiers, DADT was always primarily a restriction on speech. In a sense, this is what made DADT such an abhorrent and fundamental assault on individual freedom: Like being forbidden to speak your own name, it denied gay people the simple right to identify themselves. As queer theorist Judith Butler pointed out in a well-known 1997 essay, the 1993 law was primarily concerned with giving others extensive guidelines for determining who counts as gay, “a homosexual is one whose definition is to be left to others, one who is denied the act of self-definition with respect to his or her sexuality, one whose self-denial is a prerequisite for military service.” …

When the president signs the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” today, it will strip anti-gay prejudice of the state’s imprimatur, allowing culture to happen where it usually does — in the everyday interactions between people who are very different, sometimes radically so, but still call themselves Americans. Allowing service members to know their gay colleagues is so threatening to religious conservatives because, as studies have shown, actually knowing a gay person is the best predictor of how one views homosexuality. Once service members can utter the words “I am gay” without an official state sanction, the culture-war battle has largely been won.

I’d be curious to hear what AMERICAblog Gay readers think of this analysis. I’ve always thought the most damaging thing about “don’t ask, don’t tell” was that it prevented straight soldiers from actually knowing one of the colleagues they knew and respected was gay — in other words, facing the fact that their prejudices and stereotypes about gay people weren’t true. As I’ve said before, DADT not only perpetuated anti-gay prejudice, it withheld the antidote.


Gabriel Arana is a senior editor at The American Prospect in Washington, D.C. His pieces have appeared in The Nation, Slate, The Advocate, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He is a graduate of Yale University and a native of Nogales, Arizona.

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