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A Changing Conversation

It was with mixed emotions that I watched as US President Obama signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, leading the way for lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women to openly participate in the armed forces. On the one hand, I felt regret that the lgbt community has so readily supported the military as a noble and desired profession, with so little critique about what it means to be part of a system that has been largely utilized to violently subdue non-white people. A part of me has always wished that the lgbt community, with our concrete awareness of the realities of violence and marginalization, could challenge our national fascination with military power, might and machismo by embracing our exclusion.

At the same time, I also was elated by what is clearly an important and significant civil rights gain. The survey that was conducted of military personnel prior to the repeal revealed a force that, with a few exceptions, was largely neutral or positive about serving with openly gay people. Not surprisingly, this number soared among those who had served with someone whom they actually knew to be gay or lesbian. One of the pieces of the survey that particularly interested me was the awareness by the Pentagon of the particular importance of hearing directly from gay, lesbian and bisexual people about their experiences within the military. Special care was taken by the surveyors to elicit this information. These efforts included personal interviews with gays and lesbians who had been discharged under DADT, the hiring of a private company to reach those currently in the military, and an interactive online confidential communication option where glb people could freely share without fear of reprisal. I contrast this sensitivity with the “Highly Controversial Issues Special Response Process” currently being utilized within the Church of the Brethren, where very little effort has been made to specifically solicit input from gay, lesbian and bisexual people despite the fact that we are the object of the conversation. Maybe we have some things to learn from the military about fairness, justice and decision-making.

But even more than the civil rights gain, I was encouraged and intrigued by the language that Barack Obama used as he signed the repeal. He spoke of the self-sacrifice, integrity, honor and dignity of gay and lesbian service people, and how life is enhanced when people can be who they are with honesty and openness. The repeal, he noted, reflected American values of justice and equality, and was another step in eliminating unjust barriers that had also once existed for African American people and women. I noted that this language of morality and values was a far cry from the sexually obsessed fears and fantasies regarding shared bathrooms, showers and morale that we were hearing from the likes of John McCain and many religious detractors. It is reflective of social changes that are slowly occurring as actual experience and knowledge of lgbt people replaces demeaning stereotypes and general ignorance.

The terms of the conversation are clearly shifting. Because of decades of hard, often thankless work, the obsession, fear and ignorance that drives bigotry, hate and discrimination is being exposed and increasingly found to be inadequate. In the process, space is being opened for genuine change and improved lives. It has been a long and arduous struggle, with more to follow. But what a great way to start a new year!

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