Much of the first year of President Bill Clinton’s administration got sidetracked as a result of Clinton trying to live up to his campaign promise to end discrimination against gays in the military.

It said something about how deep-rooted bigotry against gay people was in 1993 that a simple issue of fairness and nondiscrimination created a firestorm of controversy for Clinton.

With a country to save from another Great Depression and the ambition of finally reforming national health care, President Barack Obama waited until the start of his second year in office to raise the issue.

So far, the mild public reaction suggests many Americans are ready to move beyond the ugly prejudices of the past. The Republican Party, however, thinks it can continue to make trouble for Obama by appealing to bigotry. Republican senators rudely attacked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of Defense for expressing support before Congress for ending the military’s absurd “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

It’s worth remembering that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates both were originally appointed by Republican President George W. Bush. That means Republicans in the U.S. Senate have now moved so far to the fringe that even the top Republicans -- military and civilian -- in the Pentagon aren’t right-wing enough for them.

On the other hand, anyone looking for evidence we’re actually making progress on human rights in this country only had to look to the testimony of Mullen and Gates. Mullen said he’d served with gays in the military throughout his career beginning in 1968. Of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which requires gays to hide their sexual orientation or be barred from service, Mullen said:

“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

Gates said it was no longer a question of whether the policy would be repealed, but only when.

Those attitudes contrast with the embarrassing resistance of Clinton’s Defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs to ending discrimination back in 1993.

Part of the embarrassment is Wisconsin’s, since the late Les Aspin, former Congressman for Racine and Kenosha, was Clinton’s secretary of Defense and one of the primary architects of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Early in his congressional career, Aspin had been a progressive voice on U.S. military policy, attacking wasteful Pentagon spending and opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. But by 1985, when Aspin became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he seemed to have been captured by the same military hard-liners he’d opposed. On Clinton’s attempt to end discrimination against gays in the military, Aspin ultimately caved to the opposition from military leaders and absurd arguments about grown men being afraid to take showers.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was Colin Powell, someone today we would expect to be more enlightened. Today, he is. Powell now says he fully supports Mullen’s review of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But in 1993, Powell argued against ending discrimination in the military, using the euphemism popular at the time that allowing gays to serve openly would undermine “discipline” in the military.

Everyone knows how famously “disciplined” soldiers and sailors have always been about sex, especially when they are on leave in some foreign port.

It’s hard to believe now, but “don’t ask, don’t tell” was sold by Clinton and Aspin as an advance over the previous policy of “don’t you dare tell.” The effect was the same. Gays were not tolerated. In fact, for years after the policy went into effect, far more people were thrown out of the military every year for being gay than had been previously.

When Republicans say the policy has worked, they can’t possibly mean that it has worked for the thousands of people whose military careers have been destroyed because somebody asked or somebody told.

In Wisconsin, as in many other states, firing people from their jobs because of their sexual orientation is against the law.

The reason polls show the public opposes job discrimination against gays, including by the military, is precisely because closet doors are no longer tightly locked. As more and more gays feel comfortable being identified, we now know gays are not some alien species. They are our fellow employees, family members, friends and loved ones.

Not even big, tough guys in the military have to be afraid of them anymore. Gays are human beings just like us.

Joel McNally of Milwaukee writes a regular column for The Capital Times.

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.