Saturday, January 1, 2011

Victory and contradictions of repealing "Don't ask, don't tell"

Many have greeted the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy banning gays and lesbians from openly serving in the US military as a historic victory for human rights, while others are dismissing it as a cynical move to enhance US imperialism. How do we interpret the repeal of DADT?

     While many celebrated the repeal of DADT—signed by Obama on December 15 and taking effect 60 days later, pending a review—as a historic victory, leading US anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan—mother of a US soldier killed in Iraq—has dismissed the repeal. In her article “Don’t go, don't kill”, she points out the repeal does nothing to stop US imperialism, nothing to stop the harassment of gays in the military, and nothing to stop PTSD, suicides or meager benefits of veterans in general. This is all true and was never the intention of the repeal, but she dismisses it as only serving the elites, while duping the rest of us:
“We live in a world governed by binaries, straight of gay, them or us, freedom or tyranny…we should embrace complication, appreciate difference and most of all not be duped into accepting ‘victories’ that clearly benefit an elite… the capacity for increased carnage should not be celebrated as a victory!”
     This interpretation itself is based on a binary that the DADT repeal must either be a complete victory over imperialism, or a defeat. While Sheehan’s arguments help to highlight the contradictions of the DADT repeal, they dismiss the importance of reforms, and dichotomize the gay rights and anti-war movements.

     The truth is that the repeal of DADT is both highly limited and a historic victory. For more than two centuries gays and lesbians have been banned from openly serving in the US military, initially under “sodomy laws”, then under labels of “psychiatric illness” and for the past 17 years under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Since Bill Clinton instituted the policy in 1993, more than 13,000 servicemembers have been discharged, the equivalent of two people every day, while an estimated 65,000 gays and lesbians remain in active duty under official discrimination. Homophobia from the top of the military has fueled unknown counts of harassments and threats, like those against war resister Skyler James who now lives in Canada.
     US elites like Defense Secretary Robert Gates certainly have their own reasons for repealing DADT—like increasing the recruitments numbers for a military overstretched in two quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, while giving a progressive face to the US military and the bloody occupations it carries out—and of course repealing DADT does nothing to alter the effects of US militarism on occupied people. Nor does it end homophobia in the military, from harassment to discriminatory policies. As Chris Patti, navy serviceperson wrote in the Washington Post, repealing DADT 
“does not mean that gay and lesbian service members have equality. The Pentagon must be clear about treating all members of the U.S. military equally, which means that it must recognize gay marriage as legal and a right of every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine. These rights also must extend to their spouses, just as they do to the spouses of straight servicemen and women, to include health care, retirement benefits, GI Bill eligibility and commissary privileges.”
National Equality March, October 11, 2009
     But the repeal of DADT is an important first step towards achieving equality in the armed forces, which would not have happened without gay rights organizing. There has been sustained activism against DADT, alongside other demands. Last year 200,000 people joined the National Equality March in Washington, demanding  equal marriage and an end to DADT, hate crimes, and discrimination in the workplace. 
     Dismissing all those who organized and participated as dupes of the war machine ignores how much a fight it was to win the repeal, and creates a false dichotomy between reforms and ultimate victories. Striking down official discrimination in an institution does not mean supporting the institution or stopping demands at limited reforms. Should we dismiss the historic election of Obama and the movement that elected him because racism did not disappear over night? Should we dismiss campaigns for pay equity until the world of exploitative labour is ended, and leave women under economic discrimination? We want a world of peace and equality, but until we get there are gays and lesbians in the military supposed to endure official discrimination? Surely striking down DADT is a step towards the ultimate goal, not away from it. 
demanding an integrated military
     That was the perspective the last time the military was challenged on civil rights. During and after WWII, blacks who had fought "for freedom and democracy" overseas demanded those rights at home, and one of the first gains in the Civil Rights Movement was the integration of the armed forces. Decades before the famous March of Washington and the Civil Rights Act that followed, African-American activists raised the idea of a march on Washington to pressure Roosevelt and then Truman to end the Jim Crow army. The main organizers included socialist labour organizer A Philip Randolph and future War Resisters League organizer Bayard Rustin, who saw the integration of the armed forces as a chance to strike down bigotry in one of the country's dominant institutions, which would have a ripple effect across society. There was no false dichotomy between fighting discrimination in reactionary institutions and demanding a world of peace and freedom. In 1948 these mobilizations forced Truman to integrate the armed forces, the momentum continued into a broader Civil Rights Movement, and this in turn helped build the biggest anti-war movement in US history against the Vietnam War. 
     We must keep our eye on the prize, of a world of peace and equality, but in this long journey the repeal of DADT is a small but important step. 

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