Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and Republicans Surprise Push for Gay Rights

Few would have predicted that Republicans would be the ones advocating to overturn "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," while Democrats cowered—including Anthony Woods, who was kicked out of the Army because of the law.

Thursday’s late-breaking federal court ruling out of Riverside, California, carried an element of irony in the struggle for LGBT equality in the U.S.

Judge Virginia Phillips ruled in favor of the Log Cabin Republicans who successfully outflanked Obama administration lawyers by arguing that the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law violates the constitutional rights of gay and lesbian service members.

When I was kicked out of the Army because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2008, I would never have imagined that it would be Republicans championing my cause.

Phillips ruled that imposing sweeping limitations on gay troops’ ability to speak openly about their orientation—a right afforded to their straight peers—unfairly violates their First and Fifth Amendment rights to freedom of speech and due process. She added that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” actually has “direct and deleterious effects” that ultimately undermine military readiness and unit cohesion.

With her ruling, Judge Phillips dealt yet another blow to the often-cited but never supported arguments about unit cohesion and morale used to defend “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Opponents of equality within our military will soon find themselves forced to be honest about the real roots of their opposition: good old-fashioned bigotry.

Judge Phillips’ ruling also adds credence to my friend and fellow Daily Beast contributor Tim McCarthy’s assertion that Republicans are at an interesting crossroads in their often adversarial relationship with the LGBT rights movement.

“Some prominent Republicans are now more in line with the thinking of an emerging majority of Americans than many of their Democratic peers, including the president,” McCarthy wrote. “If Democrats are not careful, if they do not begin to make swift and sustained efforts to strengthen their commitment to LGBT equality, the GOP may rightly see an opportunity to tack to the current political winds.”

With widespread concern about unemployment, the housing market, and the global economy, taking a divisive stand on social issues is hardly an effective strategy for ginning up votes. Given this new political reality and growing support for LGBT equality, some Republicans are shrewdly changing their tone for this election cycle.

However, we have reason to be optimistic about a new breed of Republicans who are quietly making substantive contributions to efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and achieve marriage equality—both of critical importance to the gay-rights movement.

When I was kicked out of the Army because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2008, I would never have imagined that it would be Republicans championing my cause.

In both Thursday’s decision on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and California’s recent Prop 8 ruling, Republicans deftly cited the Constitution to support the rights of minorities in this country. This is a welcome break from the more common invoking of the Constitution to defend one’s “right” to own a fully automatic weapon or denounce the Department of Education as evidence of communist-inspired government overreach.

What this new push tells us is that, despite the astonishing staying power of the GOP clown show featuring our favorite demagogues, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, it’s important not to view Republicans as a monolith. Instead, we should view them in a more nuanced light. There is a small but growing number of Republicans who recognize that staying true to the values of limited government and individual liberty means believing in a world where gays and lesbians are treated equally.

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This is why, for the first time, a majority of Americans believe gays and lesbians should have the right to marry and almost 80 percent say they should be allowed to serve our country openly in the military.

If we see a return of the rational right, LGBT equality may finally transcend petty partisanship. This new brand of Republicans is the only group that can influence the GOP’s mainstream. If they do, we may see a day when fundamental beliefs in American fairness and equality are applied to all citizens regardless of their orientation.

In the meantime, President Obama and the Democrats are letting the opportunity to lead on issues of basic individual rights slip through their fingers. Already under siege for the anemic economic recovery and the Afghan war effort, Obama can stand up for something unequivocally right on the American ethical compass—a freebie, if you will. And if he doesn’t, someone from the other side of the aisle just might jump on the opportunity.

Anthony Woods, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was discharged from the U.S. Army in 2008 for violating the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.