Gays see US repeal of law as civil rights milestone

 

Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S.
military is a step toward equality, advocates say, but a fight for other social
changes such as gay marriage still lies ahead.

The Senate voted Saturday to end the 17-year ban on
openly gay troops, overturning the Clinton-era policy known as “don’t ask,
don’t tell.”

“It’s one step in a very long process of becoming an
equal rights citizen,” said Warren Arbury of Savannah, Ga., who served in
the Army for seven years, including three combat tours, before being kicked out
two years ago under the policy. He said he planned to re-enlist once the policy
is abolished.

“Even though this is really huge, I look at it as a
chink in a very, very long chain,” he added.

Supporters declared the vote a civil rights milestone.

Aaron Belkin, director of the California-based Palm
Center — a think tank on the issue — said the vote “ushers in a new era in
which the largest employer in the United States treats gays and lesbians like
human beings.”

For thousands of years, he said, one of the key markers
for first-class citizenship in any nation is the right to serve in the
military, and Saturday’s vote “is a historic step toward that.”

Repeal means that for the first time in U.S. history,
gays will be openly accepted by the military and can acknowledge their sexual
orientation without fear of being discharged. More than 13,500 service members
have been dismissed under the 1993 law. Before that, they had been explicitly
barred from military service since World War I.

The change won’t take immediate effect, however. The
legislation says the president and his top military advisers must certify that
lifting the ban won’t hurt troops’ fighting ability. After that, there’s a
60-day waiting period for the military.

Some supporters of the repeal traveled to Washington to
witness the vote, including Sue Fulton, a former Army captain and company
commander who is spokeswoman for Knights Out, a group of 92 gay and lesbian
West Point graduates who are out and no longer serving.

Driving home to North Plainfield, N.J., the 51-year-old
Fortune 500 executive said she thinks the repeal will have an effect on the
civil rights of gays in America.

“As more people realize that gay and lesbian
citizens are risking their lives to defend this country, perhaps they’ll be
more willing to acknowledge gays and lesbians as full citizens in other
ways,” she said.

Conservative organizations said the vote didn’t reflect
the sentiments of rank-and-file military members and should not have taken
place so close to the end of the current session of Congress.

“The issue that really disturbs me more than
anything else is that legislation that’s controversial tends to be done in
lame-duck sessions when a number of the elected representatives are no longer
accountable to the people,” said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey
Family Policy Council.

The Massachusetts Family Institute blasted Senate
Republicans, including Sen. Scott Brown, who broke rank with their party on the
vote.

“(They) made a vow not to vote on ‘don’t ask, don’t
tell’ until the budget was resolved and they broke trust with the people,”
said the group’s president, Kris Mineau. “In doing so, they not only have
put special interests above fiscal interests but also have put our troops at
risk during wartime.”

In New York, home to one of the nation’s largest gay
communities and a gay pride parade whose grand marshal this year was an openly
gay, discharged serviceman, 28-year-old Cassandra Melnikow glanced at a news
ticker in Times Square announcing the repeal and said: “Excellent! It’s
about time.”

“I don’t see what difference (sexual orientation)
makes in the fighting military,” said Melnikow, a public health
researcher. “What’s the big deal?”

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