February 4, 2010

Slowly Opening The Closet Door

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Early last month, when the heavy underdog Cornell basketball team nearly upset Kansas, the number one ranked team in the nation at the time, it was surely a wakeup call: The Big Red is not to be underestimated this year. Similarly, when Martha Coakley recently lost the Massachusetts Senate race, the Democratic Party was dealt a strong message: It’s time to shift our party’s focus from healthcare to the economy. In his State of the Union Address delivered on Jan. 27, President Obama surely felt the pressure which had been building from many moderates and conservatives around the country. The word “jobs” was mentioned 23 times during his speech, while “health care” was only uttered seven times. As politicians are reminded that “it’s the economy stupid,” new questions arise: will other social initiatives, such as healthcare, be left to die?

Like many Americans, I have become overwhelmed and have been generally frustrated with the entire partisan debate surrounding healthcare. In all likelihood, healthcare and other social reforms will begin to take a back seat to the remaining economic uncertainties that exist. However, there is one specific piece of reform that Obama mentioned in his State of The Union that remains under the radar but is fighting to be heard: repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military.

“Don’t ask don’t tell” is the common term for the legislation prohibiting openly gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals from serving in the United States military. Introduced in 1993 under the Clinton Administration, DADT restricts an individual who “demonstrate(s) a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” from serving in the armed forces of the United States, because “it would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.”

This Tuesday, the nation’s top defense officials declared that it is time to repeal the DADT policy, supporting the declaration made by the president in his State of The Union Address. The purpose of this piece is not to debate the theoretical arguments for or against repealing the current policy. There are those who are made uncomfortable by gays, lesbians, African Americans, Jews, short people, tall people, fat people, etc. However, similarly to the other categories, empirical evidence fails to prove that sexual orientation is detrimental to any aspect of military effectiveness including morale and unit cohesion (Belkin, 2003; MacCoun, 1996). As we continue to progress as a country I believe that no one should be denied the opportunity to serve in the military because of sexual orientation. If you would like to debate the issue I am more than willing to, but it will not be done in this article.

As most politicians shift their main focus to the economy, the timing of a renewed focus on “don’t ask don’t tell” is somewhat unexpected. However, the recent push to repeal the policy comes with a catch. Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen have asked for a year to study the impact of repealing DADT before Congress lifts the controversial policy. It may seem logical to recommend a contemplation period before altering a policy that will surely have significant effects on our nation’s military, especially during a time of two wars. However, the request made to defer final judgment on the DADT policy has little to do with uncertainty, and everything to do with politics.

In ten months voters will elect new members to Congress, and as recent events have illustrated there is no such thing as a safe seat. After Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) surprise victory last month in Massachusetts, few Democratic candidates are eager to address yet another controversial issue. Adding the DADT policy to a list of critical issues needing to be discussed is not a winning campaign strategy for any Democratic candidate, especially in the South and Midwest. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) even urged members to focus on “jobs and fiscal responsibility in their districts,” and to deal with the issue of DADT as it arises.

One frequent criticism of politicians is that they sacrifice sound judgement in order to achieve reelection. Yet the only way to accomplish reform is by first staying in power. Even though we already know that allowing openly homosexual individuals in the military will not have any harmful effects, taking 11 months to “sort out” the policy is an understandable decision and a politically-savvy tactic. Rather than deciding not to address the repeal of the controversial yet outdated policy, Democrats have found a viable path to progress without significantly risking their Congressional seats. However, in order to justify the 11-month delay, Democrats need to ensure that after the election is over, they follow through on this issue. The closet door for homosexual members of the military appears to be opening, albeit slowly.

Original Author: Shaun Werbelow