News & Politics

The Battle Over Don't Ask Don't Tell Was Won, But Are LGBT Activists in Danger of Losing the War?

The fight for open military service and its fellow traditionalist cause, freedom to marry, have transformed gay politics, and they've transformed gay Americans as well.

 Ask and tell all you want – the grubby compromise of nearly two decades is finally over. As of midnight on Monday, the United States military now finally permits gay service members to serve openly after nearly two decades of second-class status.

Goodness knows it took long enough: years of debate, enervating delays by the new administration, and the final review period before Don't Ask, Don't Tell was finally abolished. Many soldiers and sailors dismissed under the policy have said they plan to re-enlist. The next Fleet Week will be something to look forward to.

It's an important, historic achievement, of course. But the repeal comes at a peculiar juncture, and not only for those gay people who, like me, have been rather less than elated with a military that wages unilateral preemptive war in Iraq and still operates an extralegal prison camp at Guantánamo Bay nearly three years after Barack Obama's election.

The fight for open military service and its fellow traditionalist cause, freedom to marry, have transformed gay politics, and they've transformed gay Americans as well. They've changed our ambitions, and perhaps not for the best.

The Aids epidemic, which has not gone away and is in fact getting worse in big cities like New York, has fallen into obscurity. So have struggles to reform employment laws to protect gays from discrimination. And most glaringly of all, the freedom that the Stonewall generation fought for, freedom of sexual desire, no longer has many defenders.

As the flamingly heterosexual narrator of Philip Roth's The Dying Animalobserves, "I expected more from those guys.... They want marriage and they want openly to join the army and be accepted. The two institutions I loathed."

It's largely forgotten now, but when Bill Clinton introduced his fudge of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in 1993, he actually included a third don't: Don't Pursue. That don't may have carried a regrettable quiver of predation. But the phrase Don't Pursue at least acknowledged that gay people have sexual longings, and that desire can be difficult to control.

And we should always recall that, for all the stereotypes of sweat-soaked Navy Seals checking each other out in the barracks, it was lesbians and not gay men who suffered most under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Only 15 percent of service members are women, yet by 2007 women accounted for nearly half of all dismissals.

Advocates for repeal consistently trumpeted the "professionalism" of gay service members, insisting on their responsibility and decorum rather than their right to love who they love. Strategically, this made sense: the military is an employer, and the messiness of desire is inimical to the regimentation of the armed forces.

But by stripping same-sex desire out of gay identity, the professionalism argument may have had a more deleterious consequence. It erased the characteristic that makes gay people gay, and thereby may have diminished the standing of gay people ourselves.

This isn't just a theoretical worry. Consider a poll conducted around the time of Don't Ask, Don't Tell's repeal, which found that 58% of Americans thought "gay men and lesbians" should be allowed to serve openly. When the pollster asked whether "homosexuals" should have the same rights, that figure dropped sharply, to 44 percent.

Allow for confusion or ignorance among some of the respondents, and the sheer size of the drop still implies something disturbing: gays only find acceptance when they sound like an undifferentiated group. When reminded of the sex at the core of homosexuality, Americans seize up. Is it any coincidence that the largest gay advocacy organization in America, in a slippery and ultimately homophobic elision, calls itself the Human Rights Campaign, and that its more or less cute clipboard-toting volunteers on Ninth Avenue sport nothing more provocative than an equals-sign logo?

Marriage, you might think, offers a better chance to put love and sex at center stage. Yet the strategy for winning the right to marry has been depressingly similar to that deployed to win the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal: gradualism, assimilation, and a suppression of desire. "Families, I hate you!" the gay hero André Gide famously wrote – yet "families" has been the key word for gay marriage advocates, who insist up and down that "our" families are just like "yours."

That gay and straight couples might love differently, and that such a difference might still be worthy of legal protection, goes unspoken. And even more distressingly, unconsidered.

I have no intention of finding any value in a stupid, unproductive, homophobic law that I'm happy to see annulled today. But by taking the gayness out of gayness, by making gay rights solely about participation in pre-existing and not very liberating institutions, we may ultimately lose more than we gain. With Don't Ask, Don't Tell off the books, and with same-sex marriage legalized here in New York and on its way to the Supreme Court under the wing of George W Bush's solicitor general, it's hard not to conclude that we are facing a moment like that of the women's movement in the late 1970s, from which it has not recovered.

Having set out to defeat sexism in society, feminism took a turn and began to say that individual choices, rather than society-wide change, were what really mattered. We know the result: women still face violence, pay inequity, gross media distortions, and all sorts of other disadvantages, while the whole language of societal change has been lost.

Something similar is afoot with us. With Don't Ask, Don't Tell gone, marriage is the only battle remaining before the gay rights movement as currently constructed exhausts itself. An America in which gays can choose to serve in the armed forces and choose to marry their partners will be a better country, but only to a degree. Aids will not be eradicated, religious intolerance will not recede, adolescents will still commit suicide at shockingly high rates. And the unity forged in opposition will be long gone.

Not exactly what the boys at Stonewall were fighting for. The freedom to serve and to marry are worth the struggle, surely. But winning the freedom to love, to desire, and to be ourselves is a much trickier business.


Jason Farago is a New York-based writer and critic who contributes to the London Review of Books, Monocle, n+1, and other magazines. He is also editor of The Bugle, an American publication on culture and ecology.
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