With Liberty and Justice for All
I have been eagerly devouring the news bulletins on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — delighted beyond description that the repeal finally passed with bipartisan support and is now signed into law.
The similarities between this repeal and the march toward civil rights in the 50s and 60s are uncanny to me. I remember sitting on my uncle’s knee as a child, listening to him talk about serving in a segregated unit during World War II. I was too young to fully understand what he was saying, but he, my parents, and their friends all talked about what an injustice it was. He and other brave Negro (as we referred to ourselves at the time) soldiers were willing to die for their country, yet their country denied them equal rights under the law. They had separate units, inferior equipment, inferior assignments, and were routinely insulted and harassed.
As I recall, my uncle had lost hearing in one ear during the war. The outer ear was permanently numb, he said, although now I wonder if this was a bit of exaggeration. In any case, he would allow me to stick pins in it (very gingerly, of course) to see if he would flinch and he never did.
His lost hearing and numb ear were symbols to me of the sacrifice he was willing to make to defend liberty in a foreign land. Liberty had something to do with the Pledge of Alliance — as a young child, I knew that much.
I also could recite the Pledge of Allegiance by heart, having said it in my primary school daily since kindergarten:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
At that young age, I might not have fully understood liberty and justice, but I did understand segregation. To me as a child, segregation was epitomized by filthy bathrooms in the stores downtown. Every time my mother took my sisters and me downtown to shop, going to the bathroom was an ordeal. Often located in the basement of whatever store we were in, the bathrooms for “coloreds” were always nasty in stark contrast to the gleaming, clean bathrooms that we could peek in as the White patrons walked in and out.
Our teachers worked hard for us to grow up believing that segregation was an injustice — something that one day would be corrected and definitely not something we deserved. They proved to be correct on both counts as court case after court case and then the Civil Rights movement supported our advance toward legal and civil rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed everything for us. Legal and civil rights became the law of the land.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? — Same Wine, New Bottles
When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was first suggested by the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the arguments pro and con were eerily familiar to me — references to holy books, “God’s will”, “unnatural acts”, and public opinion adamantly against integration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBTs) Americans into the military. Each of these arguments had been used decades before to keep my uncle and other patriotic Americans in segregated military units.
Even so, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was an actual improvement over the outright ban that had existed before. Since LGBTs could “cover” — conceal their sexual identity, they were permitted to remain in the military as long as their sexual identity remained hidden. For centuries past, an unknown number of African Americans have also “covered” — passing for White. During my uncle’s day and before, those who passed and joined the military served under a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” injunction.
Another March toward Liberty and Justice
The fervent opposition to segregation that my parents and teachers instilled in me as a child has now expanded to my equally fervent support as an adult for full human rights for all. While I may get discouraged whenever the latest legislative or court initiative is set back, my spirits are immediately lifted when I look at the historical progression of human rights over time.
Year by year, decade by decade, century by century, human rights have been expanding for group after group. Slavery and indentured servitude have been abolished. Women and people of color have won the right to vote and been integrated into the military. Segregation and laws against miscegenation have been overturned. It is no longer fashionable or even acceptable to declare oneself as a racist or sexist.
Achievement of civil and legal rights for each group hasn’t been fast, and it hasn’t been a straight road, but the march toward liberty and justice for all continues onward, nationally and internationally.
Specifically with respect to gay rights, many companies have adopted policies that protect domestic partnerships, yet marriage equality is still a promise in most states. Some organizations, including the University of Houston where I am a Professor Emeritus, have included sexual orientation in their equal opportunity provisions, yet there is no federal law guaranteeing it. Even so, another sign of the changing times is that some House and Senate members who opposed repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” avoided any offensive implication that gays were inferior or “unnatural”. Rather, they claimed that their opposition was based on concern about the morale of the troops.
Attitudes are changing and as they do, so will the laws. In Reframing Change, Chapter 6, we emphasize the importance of celebrating small wins to keep up one’s spirits. Liberty and justice have not yet fully implemented for all Americans, there is more to be done, but the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a “Big Win” that I am delighted to celebrate with millions of others.
What a wonderful start for the New Year!
Happy holidays to all of you,
1. Reframing Change, Chapter 6, Initiating Change
2. Yoshino, K. (2006). Covering : the hidden assault on our civil rights (1st ed.). New York: Random House. See also http://www.kenjiyoshino.com/articles/pressure_to_cover.pdf