The Senate's vote to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military is an occasion for looking both backward and forward — backward to the long struggle by gay activists to put equality on the national agenda and forward to the campaign to prohibit discrimination on other fronts.
In the past year, attention has focused on the role of political and military leaders in repealing the demeaning "don't ask, don't tell" policy, enacted in 1993. Indeed, it's hard to overstate the historical significance of the congressional hearing in February at which Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed repeal. President Obama also pushed for change (even as his administration defended the policy in the courts).
But Saturday's vote was also the culmination of a decades-long campaign — one that was initially ridiculed — to persuade the military to treat homosexuals as equals. Eventually the evident injustice of excluding gays and lesbians produced a proposal by President Clinton that they be allowed to serve in the military. That initiative was watered down to create "don't ask, don't tell," which put gays and lesbians in the humiliating position of having to conceal their sexual orientation if they wanted to serve their country.
Support for repeal among the public and in Congress also reflected changing attitudes that can be credited not only to gay rights campaigners but also to ordinary gay and lesbian Americans who, by embracing their identity, made it harder for their friends, families and co-workers to cling to anti-gay prejudices.
Important as the vote was, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" leaves unfinished business for advocates of equality. For example, Congress has yet to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the workplace. They can now choose a military career without fear of discrimination but not — in many states — a job in the private sector. Obama should make approval of the act a priority in the new Congress.
The most conspicuous unfulfilled aspiration is marriage equality for gays and lesbians. No one pretends that Congress is likely any time soon to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman and allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. But the same was once said about Congress' willingness to abolish "don't ask, don't tell." As in that case, advocates of marriage equality need to keep up the fight.