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The Injustice Of Barring Gay And Lesbian Americans From Joining In Our Nation's Defense


Tuesday, Oct. 09, 2001

A week and a half ago, I returned to New York City for the first time since the attack. I have made a wonderful life for myself since moving to California, but New York remains my home in many ways, and I knew as soon as the attack occurred that I had to return as soon as I could.

I spent that weekend taking the measure of the assault that had been aimed at my City. I visited with loved ones; viewed the attack site; and spent hours walking the streets of downtown to see how the face of my City had changed with the sudden absence of the looming twin towers.

I also learned a lesson about injustice that weekend. Over the past few years, I have worked extensively on the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy – the policy that prohibits gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military. I have interviewed dozens of service members about their experiences under the policy; written a law review article about its implications for free speech values; consulted with civil rights advocates and military leaders alike about its constitutionality; and given any number of public addresses. After years of experience with the policy, I thought that I understood it fully. I was wrong.

Every American Should Have the Right to Join in Our Defense

On September 11, 2001, my home and the people I love were attacked. When I returned to New York two weeks later, that attack became all too personal. People I love have been displaced, and the familiar streets of my City wear the signs of mourning like an unwanted badge of honor. I feel the suffering of my City as I would feel a death in my family. And yet, the official policy of my government is that I am not fit to join in the defense of my own home.

My outrage; my passion; my own complicated but earnest strain of patriotism – none of them are welcome in the U.S. military. America's call to rally the defense of our Nation is a call that gay men and lesbians have been asked to ignore.

No Time for Second-Class Citizenship

In the past, I have frequently argued that the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy threatens constitutional values by defining gay and lesbian Americans as second-class citizens. But until last week, I did not fully understand the affront that the policy offered to the dignity and humanity of gay and lesbian Americans.

In the past, I have always honored the experiences of the gay and lesbian servicemembers whom I have interviewed for my work. But only now, for the first time, have I truly begun to understand what it means to be told that you are not fit to join in the defense of your Nation. For the first time, I feel like that message has been directed at me, personally.

Time to Let Thousands of Career Soldiers Return

In the months ahead, there will be much to discuss about the military's policy on gay and lesbian soldiers. At a time when the military is calling up huge numbers of reservists, separating men and women from their civilian lives and their families, we should remember the thousands of career soldiers who have been summarily discharged because they are gay. We should let them return, to serve with honor.

At a time when we proclaim that America is a land of liberty and justice, we should also remember the military's tendency to forget its anti-gay discharge policies when it most needs the active contributions of every soldier, only to resume discharges with renewed fervor after hostilities cease.

This pattern was repeated in World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War alike. Now is the time to break that pattern. Rather than once again "overlooking" the presence of gay and lesbian soldiers during a time of crisis, we should permanently do away with this dishonest policy.

The only policy we should have now is a policy of equality. Let the military invite gay men and lesbians to serve their country on equal terms. Our leaders will be proud at the response that they receive.

Bringing "Outsiders" In

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should take this opportunity to understand the true meaning of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy – to reflect on what it means for our government to brand a single group of Americans as outsiders who are unfit to join in the defense of their own home.

With great tragedy comes the opportunity for greater wisdom. Now, perhaps more than ever before, Americans may be equipped to reassess the military's discriminatory, exclusionary policy.

Tobias Barrington Wolff is a professor of Constitutional Law and Civil Procedure at U.C. Davis. His e-mail address is

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