Equality: Why must it take so long?

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photoJohn Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.

Today it is my distinct privilege to announce the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” No, no, not that DADT. The other DADT. You know, the one I described in my Feb. 7 column about my neighborhood — Hazel Dell But The Good Part — adopting a policy on being openly Texan.

Explaining the HDBTGP doctrine, I wrote: “No one can ask if you’re a Texan. How you barbecue in the privacy of your own backyard is nobody else’s business. … As long as you aren’t flaunting the Lone Star lifestyle, you are accepted.” Just be careful not to “mutter something deviant like ‘How ’bout them Cowboys?’ ”

So today I’m a free man, no longer forced to hide my indigenous orientation. Just as well. Our little DADT wasn’t working out anyway. This stupid drawl was always a dead giveaway.

On the more serious level, you’ve got to look at last week’s repeal of the real DADT and believe, as President Obama predicted at Wednesday’s signing ceremony, “that people will look back on this moment and wonder why it was ever a source of controversy in the first place.” Indeed, that’s what many Americans think about other historic steps in our march toward equality. As we review the pioneering steps taken by women into the voting booth, people of color into a fully integrated military, and interracial couples down the wedding aisle, we always wonder why it had to take so long.

Two women from Washington state are asking that same question. You might not have heard of Grethe Cammermeyer of Whidbey Island or Margaret Witt of Spokane. Here’s what you need to know:

Col. (Ret.) Cammermeyer is a retired Army nurse. She was awarded the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service in Vietnam. She was named the 1985 Nurse of the Year by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the 1995 Distinguished Alumna by the University of Washington School of Nursing.

In 1992, Cammermeyer was booted out of the military for stating that she is a lesbian. She won a court battle, was reinstated in 1994 and retired in 1997 after 31 years serving her country.

On Wednesday, she led the Pledge of Allegiance at the signing ceremony.

When valor didn’t matter

Maj. Margaret Witt was awarded the Air Medal by President Bush in 2003 and the Air Force Commendation Medal for saving a Defense Department worker’s life. She served with distinction for 18 years in the Air Force.

No one ever asked, and Witt never told, but the Air Force, acting on a tip, discharged her in 2006 for having a lesbian partner. She won a court battle and expects to rejoin the Air Force Reserve next year. She, too, was at Wednesday’s signing ceremony.

To be sure, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell really was not about homosexuals in the U.S. military. They’re already there, and always have been. No, DADT was about compulsory lying. As Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

On Wednesday, Obama assuaged Mullen’s concerns: “No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love. … our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity, as well.”

Dismantling DADT will not occur quickly, but military leaders say it can and will be done well. Naysayers predict chaos, but I suspect that won’t happen for three fundamental reasons. First, military members know how to follow orders. Second, sexual misconduct regulations remain in effect. Violators — whatever their sexual orientation — will be punished. And finally, 28 other nations have allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military with virtually no negative effects on military readiness or national security.

Wednesday’s signing was a long-overdue milestone for equality. As syndicated columnist Eugene Robinson concluded, it was “a reminder that even in dysfunctional Washington, D.C., what Sarah Palin derided as ‘that hopey-changey stuff’ can still produce real hope and change.”