All sorts of people step forward to defend their country by serving in the military. And the military is glad to have them: college grads, high school dropouts, men, women. Race doesn't matter, and actually, neither does citizenship. Close to 30,000 members of the U.S. military are not American citizens.
So it is astonishing that to this day, openly gay men and women are still not allowed to serve in the armed services. And though Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took steps in March to make it harder to expel homosexuals from the military — by, for example, limiting the evidence that can be used against those suspected of being gay — the change nonetheless perpetuates the notion that gays and lesbians should have to live in fearful secrecy, as though they were criminals instead of patriots.
A new agreement reached this week between the White House and congressional Democrats isn't quite the outright rejection we'd like to see of "don't ask, don't tell." But it's a laudable compromise, the first real progress toward eliminating the Clinton-era policy that itself was intended as a compromise to allow homosexuals to serve without worrying that they would be asked about their sexual orientation — grounds for their dismissal.
Under the agreement, lawmakers would vote now to repeal the policy, but the new rules would go into effect only after the president, the Defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that the military was ready. Meanwhile, Gates is conducting a review, scheduled to be completed by December, to determine whether the change would have adverse effects on the military. Ostensibly, that means whether troops would accept openly homosexual comrades in arms.
Ultimately, it shouldn't be their choice, just as they don't get to choose the race or religion of their fellow servicemen and women. But conservative opponents of ending "don't ask, don't tell" might have exaggerated the acceptance issue anyway. We'd guess that what matters most to the men and women who honor their country by protecting it is whether the people who serve with them have the drive and the ability to get the work done.