When former President Bill Clinton was elected nearly 18 years ago, there was heated debate about gays serving in the United States military. Originally, a proposed federal law was to ban all gays from the armed services; Clinton rallied support for a compromise and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was born in 1993.
Seven years later, Clinton declared June as National Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, though people were celebrating long before. This past summer, President Barack Obama added a few more words to reflect increased openness: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Pride Month continues to be celebrated through the month of June.
This June, the LGBT community has even more reason to celebrate: in late May of this year, Congress voted to repeal DADT with a 234-194 vote, and the Senate is expected to debate the bill this summer. These are monumental steps in civil liberties, a change President Obama vowed to make during his 2008 campaign.
Back in 2008, we mentioned Steve Estes’ book Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out, which documents the stories of servicemen and women from different generations who struggled with their homosexuality during their time of service. Estes analyzes the challenges of the ban in the context of the evolving gay rights movement.
He said in an interview:
The U.S. stands nearly alone among developed nations in banning the service of openly gay troops. Among the original members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, only the U.S. and Portugal ban gay and lesbian service personnel. Nine of the countries with troops fighting along side American forces in Iraq and twelve of our allies fighting in Afghanistan allow gays to serve. Countries that have lifted the ban since the 1970s include Australia, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain.
The recent House vote is a sign of positive change for the minority LGBT community. Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), who voted in favor of DADT in 1993, said in May, “My strong belief is that if Americans seek to put their lives on the line to serve this blessed country of ours, we should not deny those patriots that opportunity because of their sexual orientation. The action which the Committee took today makes our country stronger and better.”
UNC Press is publishing another great book on the subject, available this September and now for pre-order. In Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, Allan Bérubé examines how gays in the military were treated during one of the biggest conflicts in United States history. Originally released in 1990 just before the controversial DADT compromise, the new version of Coming Out Under Fire includes a foreword by historians John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman.
Both books are essential for learning about the issues encompassed by gays serving in the military. The authors examine the problems from the inside out, with interviews and stories from veterans who were in the military as homosexuals before and after the 1993 federal law. We’ll be looking forward to what the Senate says this summer.