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The wrong side of history

'Don't ask, don't tell' is as repugnant
as the 'separate but equal' pact before it

By Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and
the author of "War and Liberty: An American Dilemma: 1790 to the Present."

This article was originally published June 12, 2007 in the Chicago Tribune

Americans need to elect a president in 2008 who can inspire us to be the best we can be. In that light, I watched last week's Republican presidential debate with special interest. The moment in the debate I found most revealing was when the moderator asked the 10 candidates to raise their hand if they believe gay and lesbian Americans should be allowed to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces.

Not one of them raised his hand.

At a time when our military is desperate to recruit qualified men and women, when more than 80 percent of Americans oppose discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and when our national security depends on our credibility as a nation dedicated to the values of religious liberty, individual dignity and equal justice, it is deplorable that candidates for the White House still embrace and defend a policy that excludes tens of thousands of qualified Americans from military service and denies patriotic gays and lesbians the right to serve their nation unless they deny who they are, lie about their identity and return to the closet.

That sorrowful moment in the debate called to mind an earlier generation of American "leaders": the generation of Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett and Strom Thurmond. Exactly half a century ago, Gov. Faubus expressed his concept of "American values" by calling out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African-American children from entering Little Rock's Central High School.

Several years later, Gov. Barnett rose to power in Mississippi by proclaiming that "the Negro is different because God made him different to punish him." A fierce defender of American values, Barnett ferociously opposed James Meredith's 1962 admission to the University of Mississippi, promising that Mississippi would never "surrender to the evil ... forces of tyranny."

Sen. Thurmond of South Carolina came to national prominence when he stormed out of the 1948 Democratic National Convention after the party endorsed civil rights for African-Americans. Thurmond declared that he would never "admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches." Racial segregation, he added, was red-white-and-blue American, for it was "honest, open and aboveboard."

I don't know whether John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney agree with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, who recently opined that gays should not be allowed to serve openly in the military because he believes that homosexuality is "immoral."

Perhaps they don't share that belief but are merely pandering to the extreme right wing of the Republican Party.

Frankly, I'm not sure which is worse: a presidential candidate who sincerely holds beliefs forged at a time when men burned witches or a candidate who is thoughtful and decent enough to know that such beliefs have no place in American law, but who is so cynical that he is willing to endanger the nation and support indecency to mollify extremists who still hold such beliefs.

I recognize, of course, that not everyone accepts the analogy between discrimination against blacks and discrimination against gays.

But those who fail to see the power of that analogy have blinded themselves to reason, in the same way that Strom Thurmond, Ross Barnett and Orval Faubus blinded themselves (or pretended to be blind) to the moral connections between slavery, racial discrimination and "separate but equal" laws.

Like racial, gender, age, disability, religious and ethnic discrimination, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is grounded in ignorance and immorality. It is a deeply irrational policy that has no more place in American law than a rule forbidding Mormons, Italians, Aquarians or those born on Friday the 13th from serving openly in the military. Our nation is dedicated to the proposition that we are all "created equal." It embraces and celebrates the principles that we are all endowed with certain "inalienable rights," that we are all entitled to "equal protection of the laws" and that we are all deserving of equal dignity and respect.

We do not always live up to those principles, but the history of our nation is one of progress toward a more tolerant, more open, more reasoned society. It is a source of righteous pride that we Americans have overcome the prejudices, hatreds, fears and narrow-mindedness of those who came before us.

"Don't ask, don't tell" is not a policy that reflects true American values. Like "separate but equal," it is at best a transitional compromise with bigotry. Perhaps, for a time, it was a necessary evil. But by failing now to condemn that policy, the GOP presidential candidates have shamed themselves, their party and their nation.

And they are on the wrong side of history.

Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune
republished with permission