Gay rights in the US face two basic tests in the near future. Obviously, gay marriage is a basic point of contention in American politics, as the individual states and the federal government wrestle with legislative actions designed to either limit or expand the definition of marriage. And, since the election of President Obama, activists have anticipated the end of "Don't Ask Don't Tell", the military's ban on out gay service members. This week, both of these areas of gay rights met with new developments—some good, some bad.
Let's begin with the endless back-and-forth at the state level on gay marriage. Last year, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples should legally be able to marry in that state. This week, the Connecticut legislature's Judiciary Committee voted 30 to 10 to endorse a bill offering a new framing of the state's marriage law. The new bill removes gender-specific language from the state's marriage laws, and turns existing same-sex civil unions into legal marriages beginning in October 2010. The bill also removes discriminatory language from the state's 1991 anti-discrimination law, which, ironically, included a statement of Connecticut's opposition to both gay marriage and any discussion of same-sex relationships by teachers in schools. An additional provision of the new bill, offered as a compromise for concerned legislators, allows churches to refuse the use of their facilities for gay marriages and individual clergy to refuse to perform such services on religious grounds.
Lest things seem too bright and promising in the land of gay marriage, here's a counterpoint. Vermont stands poised to pass a law legalizing same-sex marriages. The bill has successfully passed the state Senate last week, was endorsed by the Judiciary Committee of the State House of Representatives on Tuesday, and comes up for a vote in the state House at the end of this week. The House stands a good chance of passing the bill, according to Democratic legislators, but apparently it will not matter if they do. That's because last week, Vermont Governor Jim Douglas promised to veto the bill if it comes across his desk. "I believe marriage has always been and ought to remain the union of a man and a woman," Douglas said. "I believe the civil unions law has offered equal rights and benefits under state law to same-sex couples and that should suffice." Since making this announcement, Douglas has been bombarded with emails and letters, many of which were obtained by the AP. One Newport, VT resident wrote, "(Vetoing the bill) would clearly show the deep feelings of discrimination, bigotry and hate you feel for a group of Vermont people who have already had to wait for equal marriage rights in our state too long." Even so, it appears Governor Douglas is going to do just that.
On to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", the US Armed Services' unfortunate and unsuccessful ban on gays and lesbians in the military. Last month, Congressman Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, released information on the service personnel dismissed under DADT in January of 2009. It turns out, in that month alone, 11 soldiers were let go. Moran plans to make a ritual of releasing these numbers once per month until the policy is repealed. “At a time when our military’s readiness is strained to the breaking point from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces continue to discharge vital service members under the outdated, outmoded ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,” said Moran. “Our allies have overcome this issue, facing no adverse consequences from lifting bans focused on soldiers’ sexual orientation. Polls show the American people overwhelmingly support repealing this policy. Yet, how many more good soldiers are we willing to lose due to a bad policy that makes us less safe and secure? I’m going to keep releasing this information each month until DADT is repealed.”
Someone needs to tell the top brass. This week, more than 1,000 retired military officers, including former top commanders, signed a petition to President Obama urging him and Congress to preserve DADT, even as Obama is reviewing the policy and has in the past endorsed the idea of ending it. The letter cited the risk to "unit cohesion" posed by an end to the policy, and Gen. Carl E. Mundy, Jr., a former commandant of the Marine Corps, told reporters that, "We just see a great many downsides to attempting to enforce on the military something I don't know is widely accepted in American society." The generals may get their wish: this past Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on "Fox News Sunday" that repealing DADT would not be happening soon, since he and the president have "a lot on our plates right now". As Gates put it, "Let's push that one down the road a little bit." Whether that will be far enough down the road to suit the letter-writing generals, however, remains to be seen.