Almost half of my youth was spent in the South, where the civil rights movement played out in ways both peaceful and violent.
My father was stationed in the Army in Taiwan, so when our family moved to Georgia I quickly saw the racial segregation that was still defining American society in the late 1950s and early ’60’s. I noticed, not for political reasons, but because I had attended military-run schools with black children. Being told they had “their own” school in another part of town was a new lesson when I was introduced to this new place.
The Supreme Court had already handed down its Brown v. Board of Education ruling, but the thrust of it — that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal — had not yet taken hold. Legal challenges were underway, especially in the South. It would be later, after I went away to college, that public schools across the region would integrate in a meaningful way, and only then, by fits and starts.
Public opinion would shift slowly, over the course of many decades. In April, 2004, a poll sponsored by Ipsos/Associated Press showed close to 80 percent of Americans want their children to attend schools with children of different races.
This week’s vote by the Senate to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military reminded me of that period, when change was wrenching and public attitudes evolved over a long time. There are striking similarities, and a notable difference in that public opinion has shifted more quickly than it did over school desegregation.
In 1993, when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was instituted under President Bill Clinton, just 44 percent of the American people thought gays should have the right to serve openly in the military. Now, just 17 years later, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 77 percent of Americans believe gays and lesbians should have that right.
There’s no doubt that the attitudes of young people have been a powerful influence in this debate. Polls have consistently shown those under age 30 are far more accepting of gays than are their elders, and one has to believe these younger voices are being heard by older family members and friends.
But also crucial have been leading figures in uniform, like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who was willing to speak out when few others in the military were doing so. Mullen testified months ago before Congress that he had served with gay and lesbian individuals since the war in Vietnam, and never seen a problem. “Everyone in the crew knew it; they never failed to deliver ordnance on time. What made us a crew was teamwork and focus on the combat mission.”
President Obama marked the occasion when he signed the bill into law: “It is time to close this chapter in our history. It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed.”
To see the military again in the front row of history, as it was with racial integration, and later, with women serving in the uniformed ranks, reminds us of the huge role the armed forces play in our society, not just in war fighting, but in cultural and social change. At a time when a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans are serving in the military, it’s striking how the relative few are being asked to show the rest of the country the way.
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