Half a Loaf for Gays Is Better Than None


July 23, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- While I sympathize with their disappointment, I think gay and lesbian leaders are being too hard on President Clinton for his tortured compromise of the military's ban on homosexuals.

Gays and lesbians complain mightily that they can still be discharged for homosexual conduct such as kissing, hugging or maybe even dancing, although the new rules aren't quite clear. Maybe same-sex dancing is OK, as long as it's not cheek-to-cheek. At least the official, expensive and useless witch hunts will be ended. That's not much, but it's a start.

Yes, Mr. Clinton could have done what many outspoken activists wanted by signing an executive order to lift the ban outright. It would have been bold. It would have been a matter of principle. It also would have been overturned by a congressional backlash.

But that's not all. It also would have meant an almost certain restoration of the most conservative policy, the one the president ended when he stopped the military from asking about sexuality at enlistment.

Instead, his compromise, conceived in consultation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appears to have muted Sen. Sam Nunn's social conservatism while this issue moves on inevitably to the courts, whose job it will be to figure out such touchy topics as whether there is a constitutional right to dance cheek-to-cheek.

The issue is in the courts anyway, but thanks to Mr. Clinton's compromise, military personnel, their families and the rest of the nation have a breathing spell, after months of heated arguments, to get used to the currently loosened, if not totally reformed, policy.

It is going to take a while for the public and the military to adjust, even to the modest changes the president has implemented, although I am certain the adjustment will come.

As an Army veteran, I am not surprised to see military men and women gripe about any kind of change. Some will quit rather than serve with gays, even though they have been serving with gays all along, whether they acknowledged it or not. Their departure will be no great loss in an era of cutbacks.

But most will adjust. Gay or straight, military people are accustomed to rules of behavior and expression that would be completely unacceptable in the civilian world. President Clinton, love him or not, has moved that culture in a direction it didn't want to go, but go it must.

Still, those who put their faith in court orders that bypass legislators and the public's willingness to accept change, benighted or not, show the same self-destructive arrogance that led to the anti-abortion backlash that followed the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion-rights decision.

The result was the pro-choice movement's nightmare, President Reagan.

The post-Reagan Supreme Court cannot be depended upon to protect homosexual rights as fundamental, as activists found to their horror when the high court upheld, I think wrongly, a Georgia anti-sodomy law that said the Constitution does not give consenting adults the right to engage in private, homosexual activity.

Oh well, discrimination against blacks in the military didn't end overnight, either. The comparison is significant. A tempest has erupted over whether the homosexual-rights struggle can properly be compared to the black liberation struggle.

I think it can. There are significant differences: Sexuality, for example, is more easily concealed than race. Still, that doesn't justify government orders to keep it concealed, just to appease bigotry.

In that vein, the NAACP's new president, Ben Chavis, pressed his organization to endorse, after vigorous argument, a lifting of the gay ban, recognizing that when justice is unfairly denied to any of us, it is denied to all of us.

But let's remember history. President Truman is often credited with ending the military's segregation of the races with a stroke of the pen on his executive order in 1948. But true desegregation didn't come until several years later when the manpower needs of the Korean War resulted in desegregation by attrition. Black casualties were replaced with whites and whites with blacks until all units were integrated. The old saying that there are no bigots in foxholes held true.

America was much more ready in the wake of courage by African-American, Asian-American and other minority warriors in World War II to integrate blacks into its military than it is ready for openly gay and lesbian troops today.

Bill Clinton is taking a lot of heat for seeking compromise on something many feel to be a fundamental right. But many others still view it as a fundamental sin. Most Americans are split down the middle, wanting to be fair, yet wondering how a total lifting of the ban would work in the military's culture.

President Clinton chose the best of the bad choices offered to him. He has given Americans time to adjust to certain change while gay activists continue to press their demands, as they should. You don't get change without making demands, patiently, yet persistently, working to win others over to your point of view.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.