Let me finish tonight with a story of American greatness.
It’s been my conclusion, watching this country’s history, that we make progress on an uneven but increasingly uplifting basis. We get better at honoring the rights of people as the years go on, as voices are raised, as consciences are tweaked.
I look at abolition in the early 19th century, the suffrage movement of the early 20th, the civil rights movement of the later 20th, each in its time expanded American liberties, our protection of human rights.
Again, it took time, raised voices, awakened consciences.
And there we were early today, in the morning, the President with a pen signing the end to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” itself a transition from the old ban on gays serving in the military.
What will be the impact be?
Think of it this way. Once people get to serve the country in war, once we see them fighting for us, our common security, something profound begins to happen.
What begins to happen is that Americans, all of us, see who’s doing their duty for the country, who’s out there on the line risking life and limb for us.
Until today, the military service of a number of Americans was, to some extent, incognito. They were serving, sweating, doing, risking all for this country but not with their full identity known.
What happened today is that their identity as gay men and women will be known. Not everybody will like it right away but everyone will know. In the years to come, people will grow up knowing that gay and straight people both are serving the country, risking their lives. They will know it and it will matter.
How do I know this? Because it’s all happened before and we’ve seen how it mattered.
When did Roman Catholics win full assimilation into the American mainstream? When did religion stop keeping them from jobs and allow the open acceptance of other obstacles to Catholics here? It happened in the 1940s. It happened when we fought World War II and Catholics found themselves fighting the war right there along with Protestants. How many war movies have we seen with the kids from Boston and Brooklyn fighting with the country boys from Alabama? The same has been true for Jewish people and, later, when the services were integrated, for African-Americans. As soon as we saw them in the fighting units, working and serving and risking all along with other Americans did the big barriers begin to fall, the full acceptance begin to emerge.
This is why open service matters for gay people, because it lets gays fight for their country without any of the negative pretence of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” serving openly and proudly and courageously to keep this country free.