Congress Reconsiders Ban on Gays in the Military

On Sept. 11, 2001, Navy Capt. Joan Darrah's weekly intelligence briefing turned out to be anything but routine: She and her colleagues watched CNN's coverage of terrorist-hijacked planes ramming into the World Trade Center.

The meeting ended, the closeted lesbian captain left the Pentagon, and American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building. Seven people died in the place where she'd been only minutes earlier.

"The reality," Darrah told Congress on July 24, "is that if I had been killed, my partner then of 11 years would have been the last to know because I had not dared to list her name" as an emergency contact.

" ... That made me realize that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was taking a much greater toll than I had ever admitted," she continued. "It caused me to refocus my priorities, and on 1 June, 2002, one year earlier than I had planned, I retired."

Darrah, who once served as deputy commander at the Naval Intelligence Command, testified at the first congressional hearing to consider lifting the 1993 ban on gays serving openly, so patriotic Americans like Darrah could serve without fear of being fired.

So far, 12,600 lesbians and gay men, including Arabic linguists, have been kicked out. Countless others didn't re-enlist or ever join.

The overdue House Armed Services subcommittee hearing spotlighted how Congress is changing. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Penn., shot down the idea that heterosexuals can't serve professionally alongside gays: "As a former Army officer, I can tell you that I think that is an insult ... "

Another veteran, Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., objected to arguments that open gays would undermine unit cohesion. "There are people in the military that think unit cohesion would be enhanced if our military reflected the opportunity and freedom that we believe is America."

The military's brass, unfortunately, declined to appear. Advocates of lifting Don't Ask included former Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva, the first U.S. soldier wounded in Iraq. Having lost a leg, Alva declared, "I had fought and nearly died to secure rights for others that I myself was not free to enjoy. I had proudly served a country that was not proud of me."

Retired Major Gen. Vance Coleman, an African-American heterosexual who first served in segregated units, said Don't Ask "hurts our military readiness. It undermines our commitment to being a nation where we are all equal ... And it ties the hands of commanders who want to welcome and retain America's best and brightest ... "

But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, argued gays in the military create a "sexualized atmosphere" that erodes unit cohesion and morale. In the presence of amputee Alva and the highly decorated Darrah, those absurd claims sounded ridiculous.

Most Americans want to move beyond Don't Ask. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows 75 percent favor allowing "homosexuals who do publicly disclose their sexual orientation" to serve in the military.

That's up from 44 percent in May 1993 -- and includes 76 percent of independents, 64 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats.

The hearing was an important first step toward repealing an un-American law that hurts the military by perverting its values and pushing away talented Americans who want to serve our country.



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