The Senate Armed Services Committee and the House guaranteed that this will be a particularly poignant Memorial Day when they voted Thursday to repeal the law that bars openly gay and lesbian Americans from serving in our volunteer military.
The lawmakers approved an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill that repeals the perverse "don't ask, don't tell" policy that has been in force since 1993. The full Senate will consider the bill next month.
The theory behind "don't ask, don't tell" was that gays and lesbians would be allowed to volunteer for military service so long as they kept their sexual orientation sufficiently secret. In practice, it has meant the discharge of more than 13,500 honorably serving officers and enlisted men and women, including more than 1,000 engineers and interpreters, who are in critically short supply.
That hasn't kept categorical opponents of equality from working to block repeal. Though the amendment explicitly states that it will not take effect until the Pentagon completes a review on how to implement it without impairing military readiness, opponents don't want any action until the uniformed services finish their study.
The use of evasion, euphemism and circumlocution is part of the long American rhetorical tradition of making prejudice pretty. Anyone familiar with the history of integration knows that, had it been left solely to the military, we'd have had segregated units for decades after President Truman issued his 1948 executive order abolishing them. They still existed in 1954, and separate schools and amenities on military bases persisted well into the Eisenhower administration. The Pentagon is competent to determine the physical requirements of specific forms of service; only the elected civilian authority has the constitutional power to determine who is allowed to serve.
Moreover, continued insistence that some Americans' sexual orientation renders them unfit for military service affronts the common sense of the nation's people, who for more than a generation have had the experience of working and collaborating with openly gay and lesbian co-workers. Their sexuality no more hinders the normal conduct of business, academia or professions than anyone else's, and we all know it. To argue otherwise is simply camouflage for bigotry. "Don't ask, don't tell" is simply accommodation to prejudice: It is perverse to argue that gays and lesbians ought now to lead the secret lives that used to be cited as the reason their sexual orientation made them a security risk.
History has an inscrutable habit of sketching out compelling symmetries, and the timing of this week's congressional vote is one of these. The origins of Memorial Day have long been located in the spontaneous desire that arose in many places to honor the recent Civil War's dead. Historians, however, now believe that the first formal Decoration Day, as this holiday was known until our own time, was observed as a special commemoration of martial sacrifice by those whose freedom it had won.
During the Civil War, the horse race course in Charleston, S.C., was turned into an open-air prison for captured Union soldiers. Hundreds died of malnutrition and exposure and were buried in a mass grave at the site. In April 1865, recently freed slaves who were members of local organizations called the Friends of Martyrs and the Patriotic Assn. of Colored Men took it upon themselves to exhume the bodies of 257 soldiers buried without coffins and to place them in dignified individual plots in a cemetery they constructed and surrounded with a fence. On May 1 of that year, according to a contemporaneous account, thousands of freed slaves gathered at the new graveyard to honor those who'd made the promise of emancipation a reality. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was sung; there were prayers and hymns. Children heaped roses on the graves. Three regiments of black soldiers — including the storied 54th Massachusetts, made famous in the film "Glory" — marched in tribute to fallen comrades.
Thanks to this week's vote by a courageous congressional majority, we can celebrate this Memorial Day in full concert with the spirit of that commemoration, a ceremony that honored free men who had sacrificed so that others might stand unhindered, as Providence intended, in the light of liberty.