Monday, December 20, 2010

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

      The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington was all set Saturday night [Dec. 18] for its seasonal frolic “Men in Tights: A Pink Nutcracker.” But artistic director Jeff Buhrman wanted to begin on a serious note.
      A few hours earlier, the U.S. Senate had completed congressional action on a bill to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. In honor of the occasion, Buhrman asked the audience at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium to stand and join in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
      It was an “emotional moment,” one friend later commented on Facebook, to hear so many gay and lesbian Americans join in a celebration of their patriotism. When younger, my friend wrote, “I’d have been so proud to have served my country openly as a gay man. Instead, I had to serve with a portable closet by my side to hide in.”
      Not yet but soon, thousands of gay men and lesbians already in the military and many others eager to join will be legally free to make up their own minds whether to stay in or come out of the closet. The hard-fought, down-to-the-wire victory gives Gay America something to celebrate this holiday season. Overall, however, both President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress get only middling grades for advancing LGBT rights.
      Obama took office amid much optimism among LGBT Americans and their straight allies. He had campaigned on a platform that included repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” as well as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that prohibits federal marital benefits for same-sex couples. He also backed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to prohibit job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And he favored amending the federal hate crimes law to include offenses aimed at gays or lesbians.
      With the Democratic-controlled Congress about to yield to divided government on Capitol Hill, only two of those items have been approved. Neither has yielded concrete results.
      The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act became law in October 2009. But despite the recent flurry of news about gay-bashing and gay-bullying, the Justice Department has yet to invoke the law against any anti-gay offense.
      The “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal itself provides that the 1993 law remains on the book for now until the Pentagon can prepare new regulations and training. Then the president, secretary of defense, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all have to certify to Congress that repeal is “consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.” Until then, openly gay or lesbian service members are theoretically subject to discharge.
      Gay rights organizations had high hopes for the job-discrimination bill as Obama and Congress started work in 2009. But the bill fell victim to other priorities, in particular health-care reform. As for repealing DOMA, the issue never made it past the starting gate in Congress.
      In their last-ditch effort to keep “don’t ask, don’t tell” on the book, Senate Republicans echoed anti-gay organizations in depicting repeal as a political payoff by the Democrats to “the homosexual lobby.” True, gay political organizations are predominantly Democratic. That is hardly a surprise given the Republican Party’s stout opposition to gay rights measures.
      For many gay and lesbian Americans, however, the issues are not political, but personal. Consider, for example, Lisa Howe, fired earlier this month as women’s soccer coach at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., after she told her team that she and her partner are expecting a child. Howe had previously kept her sexual orientation private, but thought she could share her good news with the team. ENDA might have allowed her to keep her job.
      With DOMA on the books, many same-sex couples are paying more in taxes or receiving less in federal benefits than their straight-sex counterparts even in the five states and the District of Columbia where gays and lesbians supposedly enjoy equal marriage rights. A federal judge in Massachusetts ruled the law unconstitutional on equal protection grounds this summer, but the Obama administration is continuing to claim that it is obliged to defend the law in court.
      Similarly, the administration had been defending “don’t ask, don’t tell” in court even as it was urging Congress to repeal the law. A federal judge in Riverside, Calif., ruled the law unconstitutional earlier this fall and went so far as to block its enforcement. The administration rushed to a federal appeals court to overturn the injunction. With the law still on the books, it will be interesting to see whether the case continues or is put on hold.
      With Obama set to sign the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal on Wednesday [Dec. 22], gay rights leaders are emphasizing that much has been accomplished and that much remains to be done. At least on Saturday night, however, hundreds of Washingtonians were proud to join the Gay Men’s Chorus as they raised their voices to sing of a rainbow flag that waves “o’er the land of the free … and the home of the brave.”

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