Last week, a federal judge decided that the U.S. Defense Department's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy regarding gays in the military was discriminatory. The policy going forward could be summed up as Don't Ask, I suppose. Ironically, the suit was brought by the gay Log Cabin Republicans group, and the judge's decision is being appealed by the Obama administration. Strange bedfellows, anyone?
In truth, it wasn't that long ago that Don't Ask, Don't Tell was standard practice for most American civilians, as well. I knew one of my uncles was gay from the time I was 14, but we never talked about it. Some years, my family would go to his house in St. Louis for Thanksgiving. The food was fabulous, and he and his "roommate," Richard, were great fun to be around. And, like clockwork, at some point on the drive home, my father would say, "I just wish Don would find a nice woman and settle down."
I never found out whether he was saying this for the benefit of me and my brothers (rolling our eyes in the backseat) or whether he was really that naive. Don't ask. Don't tell. It was family policy.
It was the same way at most of the places I worked early in my career. You knew certain co-workers were probably gay, but no one ever spoke of it. Such news could kill a career.
The first person to "come out" to me was a cousin by marriage, who returned from his first year of college and decided to tell his entire family at Christmas. This was 25 years ago, and it was a brave thing to do, even though my reaction — and that of many in his family — was "duh." (Or whatever the verbal equivalent of that response was 25 years ago.) We'd have been more shocked if he'd come out and said he was straight.
One of his brothers, a good ol' boy from rural Louisiana, said, "I don't care if you're gay, just don't act like it." It was funny, even then.
We've come a long way, but there are still millions of people who view homosexuality as a "lifestyle" choice or a mental illness. Gays are still being verbally bullied and physically abused. Gay teens commit suicide at an alarming rate. Shame and fear and ignorance are powerful weapons.
Ending the military's antiquated policy of DADT is a positive step toward allowing gays to be accepted for who they are — and to allow them to "tell" without fear of reprisal.