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Gays in the military reassures #MeToo movement that you don’t have to win to make progress

Stefani Reynolds

Despite a credible accusation of sexual assault, Brett Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice. For many women and survivors of sexual assault, the nomination and confirmation triggered feelings of devaluation, betrayal or fury. Christine Blasey Ford put herself through a grueling public recounting of her traumatic experience only to have Senate Republicans shove her aside in a stampede to confirm the accused anyway.

In history’s long arc toward gender equality and sexual security, his confirmation was an excruciating loss. The feelings it triggers will endure and resurface. Kavanaugh is likely to serve on the Court for many years to come, delivering speeches, participating in oral arguments and writing opinions. Each news mention will be an unwelcome reminder.

{mosads}At times like this recalling that setbacks are inevitable gives cold comfort, even though it happens to be true in any successful civil rights movement. However, more can be said on these sad occasions. Painful as retrenchments are when they happen, they often produce hopeful seeds that can grow into future progress. That was true 25 years ago when an emerging gay rights movement also suffered a crushing national defeat.

Since the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, the United States had banned gays and lesbians from serving in the military, openly or otherwise. When discovered — often through witch-hunts — that they were discharged and their careers destroyed. With the election of President Clinton in 1992, this ban was targeted for reversal by a young gay rights movement that had little experience in national politics.

The ensuing public debate over “gays in the military,” as the media branded the issue was new and gut-wrenching for many gays and lesbians. It was made worse by its culmination in near-abject failure. With token improvements, the mere administrative ban was entrenched in law as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. It would keep destroying careers for nearly two more decades.

The public debate was agonizing in part because it took place against the backdrop of a brutal hate crime. Before Matthew Shepard there was Allen Schindler, a sailor rumored among shipmates to be gay.

During shore leave in mid-1992, he was beaten to death and his body and face mutilated by one of those drunken shipmates. There was the usual “gay panic” excuse that the dead gay man had made a pass at him, which turned out to be a lie. Espousing unmitigated hatred for gay men, the killer later said his own murdering of Schindler “could have been averted had homosexuals not been allowed in the military,” a kind of “boys will be boys” on steroids.

Congressional defenders of the ban tacitly agreed. They took the American public on a televised tour of an aircraft carrier to highlight the supposed threat that straight sailors would face from “predatory homosexuals” in cramped quarters and communal showers.

Military leaders characterized being gay as merely “behavioral” and belittled the idea that the ban had anything to do with prejudice, never mind that their “good order” and “discipline” rationale treated the ban as a necessary response to some natural urge to bash gays. The debate was degrading and the eventual defeat humiliating.

But today the ban is gone and enduring that public debate helped make it so. Despite the immediate loss, merely having the debate proved crucial in bringing about change.

The high-profile debate dramatically increased public familiarity with the military ban and gay rights generally. Although the AIDS crisis had put a spotlight on gay lives, the military debate focused Americans, for the first time as a whole, on a specific question of gay equality. Everyday people from Portland to Peoria found themselves more immersed in discussions about gay rights in that one year than during their entire previous lifetimes.

It was the first time many Americans ever encountered a gay service member. In addition to the horrifying story of Schindler and his distraught mother, people heard the stories of Leonard Matlovich, Perry Watkins and Grethe Cammermeyer, gay or lesbian service members who had previously challenged their discharges in court.

The public met Keith Meinhold and then Tracy Thorne and then Zoe Dunning, Jose Zuniga and other service members who, one after another, deliberately outed themselves in television interviews or at protest rallies, risking their careers to help end the ban. They gave the issue a real public face and their courage and competence eroded longstanding stereotypes.

The debate also drew out influential new supporters, sometimes unexpectedly. A conservative icon, retired Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) called for ending the ban in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “You don’t need to be ‘straight’ to fight and die for your country,” he wrote, “You just need to shoot straight.” Goldwater, it turned out, had an openly gay grandson and came to see the ban as inconsistent with his own libertarian leanings. While his endorsement did not carry the day in 1993, his quotable quip resonated for years. He helped make it okay to be pro-gay.

As in the public debate over the military ban, similar seeds of hope for future change have appeared throughout the debate over the Kavanaugh allegations and the broader #MeToo movement. Now wehave discussions by everyday people like never before, brave survivors coming forward and putting real faces on the issue and new supporters emerging from sometimes unexpected places. Win or lose, the public debate had these effects regardless. This is how conflict creates change.

The “gays in the military” debate of the early 1990s proved to be an inflection point. The heroes who came forward then did not vanish, though many did lose their military careers. They continued to press for change as others came forward to join them.

The “water cooler” conversations around the country continued and additional supporters emerged. Opposition to the ban grew, reaching 60 percent by 2000 and nearly 70 percent by 2005. Finally, in 2010, the ban fell.

Of course, that kind of change does not happen automatically and there is no guarantee that it happens at all. But the soul-crushing public debate over the Kavanaugh allegations has generated its own seeds for future change. They will need steady and dedicated cultivation, but this moment can be an inflection point too. You don’t have to win every point to make real progress.

J. Stephen Clark is a professor of law at Albany Law School in Albany, N.Y. His research interests include constitutional law, conflict of laws, employment discrimination and LGBT rights. 

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