NEW YORK — WHEN A member of an oppressed class becomes a successful arriviste, the lessons history teaches are often repressed as the price of membership to the ranks of the powerful and privileged. A moral giant like Thurgood Marshall chose not to avail himself of this expeditious amnesia. Wearing the same robes as the authors of the Dred Scott decision, Marshall retained throughout his tenure on the Supreme Court a vivid memory of what happens when the federal government fails in its role as protector of minority rights.
Yet, today Colin L. Powell, whose career owes virtually everything to a victorious battle fore quality and civil rights, is threatening to leave his job rather than allow openly gay women and men to serve in the armed forces. While arguing passionately for discrimination, Powell is using precisely the same logic that kept the American military segregated scarcely a generation ago.
It seems all but certain that the Clinton Administration is going to have its way within a year--regardless of temporary roadblocks thrown up by the frantic guardians of the Hopelessly Outdated. Soon there will be a small group of gays in the military who are out, vocal about it and legally within their rights as citizens to be as queer as military regimen allows--which is not very.
Thousands of closeted homosexuals who now serve will eventually join them, and their presence, over the next decades, will be part of the gradual transformation of the armed forces into a more reasonable reflection of the country it exists to serve.
Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine lieutenant general and Gulf War TV pundit, said last week that the military is a "highly structured, closely knit society" with "its own ethos critical to its well-being and performance." This kind of talk ought to send shivers up the spine of anyone who has an understanding of the role of a people's army in a participatory, pluralistic democracy. What this "ethos" consists of can be imagined--the Tailhook convention comes to mind. But with all due deference to Trainor's affection for military culture, if it's discriminatory, and it is, it's got to go. And it's going.
It is exhilarating that, instead of playing faux-Republican, Bill Clinton has chosen to begin his term by re-establishing federal affirmation of a woman's right to an abortion, and by pushing for what the right understands will be a major step forward in the enfranchisement of gay men and lesbians: making gay OK in the Army.
It's infuriating that the press and predictably timorous Democratic legislators criticize the President's choice of initial targets, grumbling that he should have focused on something more "important"--like the deficit. Making social justice a priority makes the clearest distinction possible between what this Administration might become and what the Reagan-Bush White House was--and offers some hope that, when Clinton announces his economic plans, social justice may be factored in, perhaps to a significant degree.
It's difficult for many progressively minded gays and lesbians that our first go-round with the new Administration is not in the service of getting more funding for health care, education and research to stop the AIDS epidemic; or about the passage of a federal Gay and Lesbian Rights bill; but rather about making queer soldiers legal--an ambiguous accomplishment for anyone who has questions about how the armed forces have been used since World War II. Again, issues arise of the solidarity of the oppressed for the oppressed.
The patriotic fervor displayed by queer servicemen and women, which ostensibly makes them more digestible to the ostensibly uneasy majority, places the immediate beneficiaries of Clinton's initiative in political harmony with groups that have participated in the persecution and oppression of homosexuals.
If these obviously bright and talented gay men and women want to serve their country, one might prefer that they opt to teach school, rather than volunteering to be the next finger on the trigger of the next errant Tomahawk missile. The interests of gays and lesbians, or of any group seeking an expansion of the rights and privileges of democratic citizenship, are inimical to the aims and conditions of a war economy and the insuperably patriarchal military "ethos," which, as Trainor says, lacks "many of the freedoms and flexibilities of the civilized world."
But it takes a long time for justice to arrive, and nothing is pure in politics. A chapter in the history of the struggle for civil rights in America is ascribable to the instruments of federal power--however improbable those instruments might be for the task at hand, as spurs to expedite the pace of change and to enforce the Constitution, over and against the objections of reactionaries.