As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn torpedoed President Clinton's proposal to allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces. The Georgia senator did it by taking a camera crew with him into a submarine to show sailors packed inside, as tight as sardines.
By appealing to the then-widespread heterosexual queasiness about working in such close quarters with anyone known to be gay, Nunn got restrictions on how gay Americans can serve in uniform written into federal law for the first time in 1993. Until then, a presidential decree or a Pentagon directive could have lifted the gay ban.
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In the Senate hearings that led up to passage of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' military men with chests covered in ribbons acknowledged that gay people have long served honorably. In fact, if the truth be told, gay men have probably served on submarines as long as there have been submarines and have certainly fought in wars as long as there have been wars.
But, the brass adamantly insisted that allowing gay people to serve openlythat is, allowing them to tell the truthwould be disastrous. Military readiness, unit cohesion and morale would all suffer, the nation was told.
As enacted by Congress, the gay banwhich lets gay people serve if they succeed in remaining closetedwas essentially a fantasy-protection act: It allowed those straight soldiers who'd rather not admit that everyone lives and works in a very diverse world to pretend that all of their comrades-in-arms are heterosexual.
Fast forward 10 years to today: Nunn has long since retired from Congress and Clinton is no longer president, but the dangerous gay ban endures.
Why do I call it dangerous? The requirement that the military boot out anyone it discovers to be gay is causing it to throw away precious human resources that our nation simply cannot afford to waste. If the ghastly terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 taught the United States anything, it was that Americans have got to better understand the rest of the world, including those countries and organizations that would do us harm. We have got, quite literally, to speak their languages.
Yet among the 906 men and women discharged last year simply because of their sexual orientation were seven linguists specializing in Arabicplus people with countless other vital specialties.
The uproar that the dismissal of the gay linguists caused on editorial pages failed to get Congress' attention. So ousters continue.
At last count, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) had helped 24 linguists under investigation for being gay, including ones fluent in Farsi, Arabic and Koreanthe mother tongues of President Bush's 'axis of evil,' Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that in 2001 the Army had a 68 percent shortage of Farsi translators and interpreters, a 50 percent shortage of Arabic experts and a 37 percent shortage of Korean experts. Unfortunately, those upsetting statistics don't translate into a great photo opportunityone powerful enough to jolt the sleepy Congress into lifting the ban that jeopardizes the safety of all Americans.
Most Americans do get the picture, though: 72 percent favor allowing openly gay Americans to serve, up from 53 percent a decade ago, according to the Gallup poll.
And now, SLDN is launching Operation Lift the Ban, a multi-year effort to persuade Congress to repeal the un-American law that has already cost taxpayers $258 millionand that's just the price tag for replacing the 8,895 gay soldiers discharged so far. ( For details about lobbying Capitol Hill on June 2-3, go to www.sldn.org . )
'We are doing the educational work now to build a coalition of allies in Congress to win this,' SLDN's director Dixon Osburn says.
Today, openly gay soldiers are patrolling the streets of Iraqin British uniforms. It's time we follow the example of our closest ally.
Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues and is the co-author of 'Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court.' To find out more about Deb Price and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com .
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