Yesterday afternoon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that the Pentagon study of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" strongly recommends repeal. This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee will begin two rounds of hearings, which will likely be much more contentious. Next week, a federal appeals court in San Francisco will consider whether there is a constitutional right to same sex marriage. Judge-watchers predict a two-to-one split in the panel the parties drew. And so the struggle for gay rights rolls along—on the most conservative battlefields imaginable.
Gay liberation was the direct descendant of the Sixties antiwar movement and the sexual revolution. The last things the people who brought you the 1969 Stonewall uprising had in mind was to try to get into the army or tie themselves to lifelong monogamy. Regardless of gays' views now, there are certainly many issues that arguably affect more gay people than marriage equality and Don't Ask Don't Tell: passing a federal law against employment discrimination, for example. Yet gay organizations have put a tremendous amount of their resources into fighting for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and for the right to marry.
They aren't the only ones playing against type. Conservatives are normally out there urging people to fight and to marry. A conservative president launched two wars, and conservatives tried to impeach the adulterous Bill Clinton. When it comes to gays and lesbians wanting to defend their country or provide a stable, loving union, the right wing is suddenly on the other side.
Why are they fighting?
Gays argue that open service and same sex marriage are matters of simple equality—which sounds good, because everyone agrees that inequality is un-American and bad. But the contest over equality cannot possibly account for the passion on both sides of these issues. Who is against equality, abstractly? The fight is hot because gays are seeking equal access to the very social institutions, marriage and the military, that confer social approval. In America, and in most of western culture, the soldier and the householder are models of social virtue. If gays can marry and serve their country, well, "Gay is Good" as the old movement button says.
The last things the people who brought you the 1969 Stonewall uprising had in mind was to try to get into the army or tie themselves to lifelong monogamy.
The fight to keep gays off the standard scale of social value is just the current manifestation of the long history of categorizing them as sinners—which was (and to some extent still is) how people in the Judeo-Christian tradition talk about badness. The right knows it can't make the state punish gays as sinners, for various constitutional reasons, so it is trying to make the state deny them the closest thing it has to consecration: the sacred bonds of warriors and the sanctity of marriage. The gay movement cannot stop churches from telling their congregants that gays are bad. But gay leaders can try to stop the message from coming from the state. And that's exactly what the Pentagon report did. The Pentagon noted that some of the resistance it found to open service came from "moral and religious objections to homosexuality." Without missing a step, the report continued, "aside from that, much of the concern about 'open' service is driven by misperceptions and stereotypes," which were "exaggerated" and "inconsistent with" the military's actual experience, concluding, without another word about peoples' religious morality, that the policy should be repealed.
It's a fight worth having, because the society rewards these secular symbols of goodness in countless unseen ways. Sure, military service is not a constitutional requirement for running for office, but it's a big leg up.
Similarly, although the constitution is silent on marital status as a qualification for office, there has been exactly one bachelor president. Not until 1980 did anyone win the White House with the dark specter of a divorce in his past. A snapshot of presidential candidate Gary Hart aboard the yacht "Monkey Business" ended his aspirations forever. If conservatives have their way and continue to ostracize gay citizens from establishing a married household, any gay candidate will always be somehow in a category with Gary Hart.
Good people appear in children's books. In the fight over same sex marriage in California two years ago, the antis ran repeated scary images of children learning that gay people could marry. Don't let gay people marry, the message ran. Since marriage is good, children will think gay is good. The prohibition against same-sex marriage passed. Seeing how effective the scare tactic was, when pro-gay forces challenged the California law in federal court, conservative lawyers used the same argument to hammer the witnesses for the gay side. Would you have your children learn about gay marriage in the first grade, they berated one hapless witness after another? Finally one of the witnesses, the Yale historian George Chauncey, figured it out. "Why not include gay marriage in the marriages in the children's books?" he asked his cross-examiner. You wouldn't keep interracial couples out of children's books. Is there something wrong with us?"
Regardless of what they say they're doing, that's the question—not soldiering and marrying—that the Senate Committees and the judicial panel are going to be answering in the coming days.
Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.