Don’t Ask, Don’t Care

Although I grew up in a small town, I live in the West Village of Manhattan, New York City, just three blocks from Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn, where in 1969 a police raid led to angry demonstrations that marked the start of the gay rights movement. Yet in most ways my neighborhood is just like yours. We all co-exist. Kids go to school, business owners complain about the economy, everyone – straight or gay — is worried about jobs.

I also work in an industry – journalism, media and entertainment — in which men and women of diverse sexual orientation make extraordinary contributions ever day, informing, delighting and annoying audiences of every age, gender, shape and hue. No problem.

Granted, a few members of that audience are bigots and pinheads, probably unaware that their favorite show or song was created by a team of imaginative people with social and personal lives unlike their own. So let’s keep them out of this.

Because it’s about this gays in the military thing. Listen, Congress. The majority of the people have spoken – as many as 78% of them in a May CNN poll,  50% in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey. And it’s not so much “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as simply, “Don’t Care.”

Don’t care if homosexual men and women openly serve in the armed forces as long as they do their job and defend their country. Don’t care what military men and women and men and men and women and women do in their spare time as long as it doesn’t involve minors, criminal activity or abuse.  Don’t care because it’s none of our business.

I knew for sure that public and military opinion were changing on this issue exactly eight years ago, when I was guest lecturing at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. The school is just down the road from Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division, and many of Austin Peay’s students are active duty military personnel, veterans and family members.

Keep in mind that not so long ago, at Fort Campbell in 1999, Private First Class Barry Winchell, who had been dating a male-to-female transgender performer he met at a club, was verbally and physically harassed and eventually murdered by another soldier. But just a short time later, the young men and women with whom I spoke seemed fully comfortable with their gay and lesbian friends and comrades-in-arms, far more concerned with the safety of colleagues and loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan than how they behaved when the lights were out. In fact, these students frequently hung out together in gay or straight or transgender bars in nearby Nashville, at ease with their own and each others’ sexuality.

But now, despite wide public acceptance, the Senate may strip the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” from the defense appropriations bill to prevent a filibuster, just part of the continuing spirit of legislative negativity and resistance that denies the reality of everything from nuclear arms proliferation (the START Treaty) to climate change.

It’s all so reminiscent of that old Groucho Marx song, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” Because the man threatening to filibuster is the Groucho – er, Grouchy – of the United States Senate, the newly reelected John McCain.

As vividly and hilariously illustrated this week by both Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, the Senior Senator from the State of Cantankerous has shown that he can play a childish game of “Step over that Line” until well past bedtime, even after the bugler blows “Taps.”  First, he said he’d consider backing repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell if the military’s top brass recommended it. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen did just that (as did their commander-in-chief, Barack Obama).

Not good enough, said McCain back in February. Before he’d go along he needed to see a study thoroughly surveying the military point of view.

Questionnaires were sent this summer to 400,000 active and reserve troops and 150,000 military spouses. The results are officially due December 1 but word is out. The November 11 Washington Post reported, “More than 70 percent of respondents to a survey sent to active-duty and reserve troops over the summer said the effect of repealing the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy would be positive, mixed or nonexistent, said two sources familiar with the document. The survey results led the report’s authors to conclude that objections to openly gay colleagues would drop once troops were able to live and serve alongside them.”

Still not good enough, McCain said on Sunday’s Meet the Press. He wants hearings and another report – this one “to determine the effects of the repeal on battle effectiveness and morale” (despite the fact that the December 1 report apparently does just that).

“McCain has said he wanted to hear from rank-and-file troops,” Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said. “He just heard loud and clear from them through the study. But he doesn’t like the answer – and is stonewalling, trying to run out the clock on repeal by calling for congressional hearings.”

An old Navy man like you should know when the boat has sailed, Senator McCain. Just this once, forget John Paul Jones and give up the ship. Remember the words of your conservative mentor, the man whose seat you inherited in the Senate, Barry Goldwater. In 1994, he wrote, “The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process.”

Or, even more succinctly and famously, in a 1993 letter Goldwater wrote to The Washington Post: “You don’t need to be ‘straight’ to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight.”

MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.



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MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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