White House Push to End ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Spurs Debate in Military

February 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff takes a look at gay rights in America, as Army officials air concerns about the president's plan to move ahead with a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Experts on gay rights issues examine the shifting politics of sexual orientation in the armed forces and beyond.

JIM LEHRER: Now: gay rights in America, and the question of whether gays and lesbians should be able to openly serve in the U.S. military.

That issue is continuing to draw attention in Congress, and that was the case again today.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Army’s top leaders made it clear today at a Senate hearing on the Army budget they’re worried about repealing don’t ask, don’t tell, the policy governing gays in uniform.

Army Chief of Staff General George Casey:

GENERAL GEORGE CASEY, army chief of staff: I do have serious concerns about the impact of the repeal of the law on a force that’s fully engaged in two wars and has been at war for eight-and-a-half years. We — we just don’t know the impacts on readiness and military effectiveness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Secretary of the Army John McHugh said he opposes a temporary halt to the current policy of discharging gays from the service.

JOHN MCHUGH, secretary of the army: If the question is my personal opinion, if asked, the preference would be we wouldn’t enact a moratorium.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president made his wishes known in his State of the Union address last month.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, today’s hearing highlighted divisions within the Pentagon. This was Secretary McHugh’s boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, earlier this month.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. secretary of defense: We have received our orders from the commander in chief, and we are moving out accordingly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At that same hearing, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, surprised many by supporting repeal.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, joints chiefs chairman: Speaking for myself, and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, yesterday, General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, agreed with Admiral Mullen.

MAJ. GENERAL RAYMOND ODIERNO, commander, Multi-National Corps-Iraq: My opinion is, everyone should be allowed to serve, as long as we’re still able to fight our wars and we’re able to have forces that are capable of doing whatever they’re asked to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The prospect of letting gays serve openly in the military comes as gay advocates are also pressing for changes in civilian policy, by challenging bans on same-sex marriage and other legal restrictions.

We take a wider look now at the state of gay rights and where the issue of military service fits into that.

George Chauncey is a professor of history at Yale University whose work focuses on lesbian and gay history. He has testified in favor of gay rights in a number of court cases, including the ongoing trial over Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban in California. Suzanna Walters, professor of gender studies at the University of Indiana, she is the author of the book “All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America.” Michael Kazin, he’s a social historian at Georgetown University. And Andrew Kohut, president and director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Thank you all for being with us.

And, Andy Kohut, I’m going to start with you and ask you about the polls. What to they show in terms of the evolution of attitudes on the part of Americans toward gays serving in the military?

ANDREW KOHUT, director, Pew Research Center: Most of the polls that have come out recently have found pretty broad support for allowing gays to serve openly — openly in the military. Our polls conducted in early February found 61 percent favoring, 27 percent opposed.

And the other polls more or less show that — the same kind of margin of support. Now, if you go back to 1993, 1994, the polls were much more divided about — the American public was much more divided about whether this was a good idea or not, but not so now. There’s broad — broad acceptance of this notion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you have clearly seen a change in thinking.

Professor Walters, how — what do you attribute that change to? You have studied this.

SUZANNA WALTERS, professor of gender studies, University of Indiana: I mean, we have seen in the last 10 to 15 years huge explosion of visibility in popular culture, in — in the world at large and how we understand our world.

But I guess I would be a little cautious here, because I think there has been shifts, but I think we would be mistaken to think that we can’t also go backwards. You know, what can be won can be lost. And we have seen this historically with all kinds of social movements, particularly the women’s movement and abortion rights.

And I fear that, if we’re too optimistic about where we are now with the gay rights movement, we will not be vigilant enough to fight back against the kind of backlash that I think we’re — we’re seeing right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Kazin, you’re — again, you’re also somebody who has — has studied this.

Why do you think there’s been this shift in attitude? And do you think that those who — who want gay rights to advance are right to be worried, as Professor Walters is?

MICHAEL KAZIN, social historian, Georgetown University: I’m not sure.

I think that, you know, in the history of social movements, certainly, there is a backlash sometimes. Things go back. But once a movement gets defined as a movement for rights, for individual rights especially, it’s very difficult to oppose that movement for most people.

Now, certainly, one of the reasons why, as Suzanna Walters, said that — that the gay rights has advanced is so many people young people are growing up with other young people who have come out, both gay men and lesbians. As she said, popular culture is full of gay characters in very high places, very visible places.

So, being gay no longer seems unusual, remarkable, deviant, which is an old term that used to be used. It seems quite normal, especially for a lot of young people in many parts of the country. And that I think makes — coming out was really the most — one of the most brilliant acts that any social movement has — has exercised in recent years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Chauncey, how do you see attitudes shifting? And how do you see the attitude toward gays in the military fitting into that? Which one is leading the other?

GEORGE CHAUNCEY, professor of history, Yale University: Well, you know, I think that attitudes across the country can’t be homogenized.

There are a lot of differences along lines of religion, race, region, and certainly generation. And Americans across those divisions are more comfortable with some gay rights issues than with others.

I think part of the useful historical context here is to realize that don’t ask, don’t tell actually governed relations between gay and straight people across most domains for many years. Anti-gay discrimination was so widespread that gay people realized that they had to remain hidden, closeted to function as full citizens.

The military policy itself that we’re debating now originated at the beginning of the — beginning of the Second World War, when, for the first the military, didn’t just prosecute homosexual behavior, but actually singled out gay people as a class of citizens they would discriminate against and prohibit from serving.

And, shortly after the war, the federal government implemented policies to prohibit gays from working in the civilian work force, civilian federal service. There were regulations in many states prohibiting gay people from being served in restaurants or bars. And there were raids on gay bars and other meeting places across the country.

So, gay people realized they had to be very hidden. And the — the civil rights movement that developed in the ’40s and ’50s in response to that was deeply inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the black movement, which didn’t just seek an end to discrimination, but dignity. And, for gay people, that meant the rights and the — of being able to live and the dignity of being open about who they were.

And I guess I have been struck by, as a historian, that this movement, like most civil rights movements, is really a long-term affair, and that there have been so many movements forwards and backwards. In the early ’70s, you had cities and towns beginning to pass laws that added sexual orientation to their anti-discrimination laws.

But, beginning in the late ’70s, you had a tidal wave of referenda around the country overturning those laws. Likewise…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me interrupt you there and — and turn back to Andy Kohut, because we have talked about gays in the military. And you gave us those statistics. But what about — you know, we have heard our other three guests talk about attitude toward gays overall evolving. What do you see when you ask Americans how they accept gays? What changes do you see?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, you know, with regard to rights, there’s no question there’s a big change. In the early — in the mid-’80s, two-thirds of people said homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to be teachers. Now two-thirds of the public say just the reverse. Sure, they should be.

But when we ask people should homosexuality be an acceptable — an accepted way of life, you get still a pretty close division of opinion, not that much change — some change over the years. When we ask, is homosexuality morally wrong, you still find about 49 percent of the public saying it’s morally wrong.

So, there is a lot of movement with respect to rights, very small, modest movement, mostly generationally-based, with respect to the acceptance, broader acceptance of homosexuality in American society.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Walters, does that fit with what your study, your research has shown?

SUZANNA WALTERS: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, I think there — I — let me — let me be clear. I think there have been enormous shifts that have gone on in a very positive way. But you’re absolutely right that — that, when asked broader questions about sort of general acceptance of gays and lesbians, the numbers are pretty daunting.

And I think that — that part of the problem is, we haven’t focused enough on a shift in consciousness and a shift towards not — not just reaching for the brass ring of marriage rights or the brass ring of serving openly in the military, although those are key issues, but the deeper question of how to construct a sort of robust integration of gays and lesbians into American culture, a full sense of belonging and citizenship.

And that’s not going to — we — I could see a future, for example, where we have marriage rights, where we have basic civil rights, but we still don’t have that robust, rich sense of belonging, of community, of citizenship. That still is eluding us, as it has many other minority groups, I would add.

You know, just because Obama is elected president, we’re not post-racial. Just because gays are on TV, we’re not post-gay. These things still need to be struggled over. And, again, I think we need to focus on a deeper level, not just on those — attaining what seem to me no-brainers in terms of civil rights issues, marriage, military rights and so on…


SUZANNA WALTERS: … but achieving a deeper sense of integration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Professor Kazin, what is holding acceptance back on the part of that 49 percent that Andy Kohut cited?

MICHAEL KAZIN: Well, we often forgot what a radical change this is, to have homosexuality accepted even to the extent it’s accepted in this culture.

We have thousands of years of human culture where homosexuality was considered to be a sin by religious groups. And…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Strong religious…

MICHAEL KAZIN: Yes. And, so, in some ways, I don’t want to be too optimistic, but the last 40 years have been amazing, in terms of the progress of gay rights, the progress of the acceptance of gay people.

And I just disagree a little bit with Professor Walters. You know, one of the things that — when laws change, that helps to change consciousness. When the civil rights law was passed, when the Voting Rights Act was passed in the 1960s, then people’s attitudes began to change.

Even if they didn’t necessarily — white people didn’t like African-Americans any more, but they felt that, well, it wasn’t OK anymore to voice their dislike of African-Americans. Racism began to be something that was marginal, that you had to talk about in private. And that I think could begin to happen also with views about — about gay rights…


MICHAEL KAZIN: … if the laws do change, if gays are allowed to serve openly in the military, and if gay marriage becomes more and more legal in more — more places.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Chauncey, pick up on what we heard about the future and what the gay movement, what society has to look forward to in the future?

What are the main obstacles out there? And for those who feel passionately that this is wrong, what are their prospects — that greater acknowledgment and acceptance of gays is wrong — what are their prospects for making their views more widely accepted?

GEORGE CHAUNCEY: Well, I think they still are making their views widely known.

And I guess I’m struck by how deeply polarized the nation remains, so that in urban liberal enclaves, it’s easy to forget how widespread anti-gay hostility is, how easy it is in many parts of the country to be openly gay — anti-gay, how the fact gay has become the primary term of derision in youth culture today. If you don’t like an exam or a teacher or a football play, you call it “so gay.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s despite the fact that you have all pointed out that young people are much more accepting.

GEORGE CHAUNCEY: Yes. I mean, there certainly has been a sea change in attitudes on the part of the young. And I think that’s one of the most encouraging things that we see, is they have grown up in a society where they’re more likely to know openly gay people and to see gay people in the public domain.

But, at the same time, the — the Christian right and its allies have continued to demonize gay people, to compare them to the most despicable things, and to argue quite forcefully against gay rights.

I mean, on the question of what’s polite now that Michael Kazin raised, you know, I’m struck that, in the Prop 8 campaign in California, many of the advocates of Prop 8 to take away marriage rights from gay couples in their church rallies and so forth were quite vicious in their demonization of gay people.

In the public campaign, they didn’t do that, but they still focused on the threat that gay marriage might pose to children. And one of their slogans was not just protect marriage, but protect California’s children, which hearkened back to the oldest of the anti-gay stereotypes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn quickly to Andy Kohut.

Do you find that gay marriage is the stumbling block, as I was reading today, for many it seems to be?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, it certainly is.

I mean, we still have 53 percent saying they oppose it — same-sex marriage, 39 percent saying they favor. There’s been a little movement over the past six or seven years in the direction of favoring same-sex marriage, but there’s pretty strong opposition predicated upon the view of morality, because, when you shift the question to civil unions, we now have broad majority support for that, real — a real liberalizing trend in a relatively short period of time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Professor Walters, quickly back to you, is gay marriage going to continue to be the end-all/be-all of this movement?

SUZANNA WALTERS: Well, I mean, I for one don’t think it should be, I have to say. I think it’s an important civil right. Again, I think it’s a sort of no-brainer. Either you’re — you’re not — you know, you’re a full citizen or you’re not. It seems quite simple.

We’re invested in it as a movement. I don’t think there’s a turning back from that. But I think again, you know, questions of employment rights, questions of harassment in schools for kids, which continues to go on, questions of hate crimes, these all need to be dealt with. These all need to be reckoned with. We can’t put it all on marriage, although, you know, again, it does remain a very important issue for many people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there. It’s a very big subject. And I hope we can come back to it again in the future.

Professor Walters, Suzanna Walters, thank you.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor George Chauncey, we appreciate it.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Kazin, thank you here in Washington, and Andy Kohut.

Thank you, all four.