For example, the Irish deeply understood that their transition to full whiteness would be expedited by service in the Union Army during The Civil War. Likewise, Black Americans did not separate "freedom at home" from "freedom abroad." Returning from the killing fields of World War One and World War Two, African American soldiers paid a bloody tax on their full citizenship dues towards a check that was stamped insufficient funds. These deposits into the account of freedom would eventually be cashed, in no small part because of the honorable duty of those brave men and women.
I have long thought that the real stakes at hand in the opposition by Conservatives to our gay brothers and sisters serving openly in the armed forces is prefaced on an understanding that military service is often a pathway to full and equal citizenship in the polity. While these debates are couched in the language of "military readiness" and "unit cohesion," they are ultimately about belonging and citizenship. Some Americans simply do not believe that gay folks ought to be part of our political community. Most certainly, they ought not to be treated equally. In this imaginary, if "those people" openly die in the trenches and battlefields (as they have for centuries), then God forbid those same folk may actually both demand and deserve their full rights as citizens.
I have grown a bit in my thoughts on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. At first, I tolerated the policy and thought it an imperfect solution to a practical dilemma. I bristled at comparisons of Jim Crow segregation in the military to that of the discriminatory practices faced by gay and lesbian soldiers. In my mind, race is not a predilection or orientation that innately predicts anything about human behavior. By contrast, sexuality because of its very nature--a preference for and attraction to some types of bodies--is quintessentially about behavior.
However, over time I came to realize that the logic of segregation in the military was a near mirror for the logic of segregation against gay and lesbian soldiers. Black people were imagined not as individuals where race works as a social fiction made real by law, habit, and tradition. No, in the logic of the Jim Crow, black folk behave differently, are inferior and alien in their life practices, precisely because they are not white. Insert "gay" in place of "black," "straight" in place of "white," and the logic possesses an eerie parallelism.
Here, history is once more the greatest of teachers. In 1945 the Navy Department published a pamphlet entitled, "The Guide to Command of Negro Naval Personnel." Some of its suggestions:
Racial Theories Waste Manpower
Be Skeptical About Ready Generalizations
Symbols That Irritate
High or low morale has been said to result from a lot of little things. Among the little things of great importance to Negroes are words, jokes and characterizations which white people use on occasion unthinkingly. They can be such sources of irritation that leadership becomes difficult, and continued use of them has on several occasions invoked serious incidents.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a similar embarrassment.
A segregated U.S. military was thrown into the dustbin of history and the United States is long better off because of it. Ultimately, Don't Ask, Don't Tell is long overdue to join the Guide to Command of Negro Naval Personnel as a historical artifact and curio, one best suited for a museum or archive.