DADT And DOMA Were Necessary For Progress?

A reader thinks so:

Let me begin by saying that I agree with you entirely in satisfaction over the repeal of DADT and in the hope that the Supreme Court finds DOMA unconstitutional.  But there's been a lot of talk recently about how these were both inherently terrible pieces of legislation and shouldn't have been passed in the first place, and I don't think that's an entirely fair assessment.

For example, DADT: before its passage, being gay in the military was illegal. Any gay Gradual-changemen or women serving in the military had committed a crime just by enlisting and faced court-martial and prison time (if not worse) upon coming out of the closet.  The passage of DADT didn't let those gay servicemembers out of the closet, but it greatly reduced the risks of falling out. This let gays and lesbians join the service in much larger numbers and made it safer for them to integrate into military society. If we'd gone directly from a state of total ban of homosexuals in the military to no restriction at all, there would have been massive disruptions – the kind of scare stories the Republicans were bandying about during this recent repeal – only real.  DADT, although imperfect, allowed the gradual development of a military culture that could accept full recognition of out gay and lesbian service members.

Similarly, DOMA played this role as mediator of the gay marriage issue. 

DOMA was originally passed in response to the supposition that Hawaii was going to legalize gay marriage, and with the law the way it stood at that time, this would have resulted in de facto federal gay marriage.  At the time, this turn of events would absolutely not have been acceptable to most Americans.  Not only would people have been upset over the reality of gay marriage, but they also would have resented having such a decision pushed upon them by just one state's voters.

DOMA did not disallow individual states from recognizing same-sex marriages; it just stopped those decisions from bleeding out into other states whose voters might not agree.  By doing this, it allowed those states to function as "laboratories of democracy" with regards to this issue. 

Today, federal recognition won't be the result of one small state forcing an unpopular policy on the rest of the country; it will result from at least 10 widely different states sharing a proven-as-good and generally accepted policy. Essentially what I'm saying is that both DOMA and DADT need to be repealed, but they are each a major factor in their own repeal.

There are two unproven points here. The first is that DADT greatly increased the number of gay people joining the military. I have seen absolutely no evidence for that.What I did see first hand at the time was that the rate at which gay people discharged from the military under DADT soared under president Clinton, whose record on gay equality was uniformly awful, although obviously pioneered by the Christianist right. DADT was the brutal backlash my reader argues it avoided.

The second matter of fact that is wrong here is that witout DOMA, civil marriage in one state automatically would require every other state in the country to recognize it. That was never true. It wasn't true during the long century of varying miscegenation laws. It was a phantasm cooked up by the right (and unfortunately propagated by some of the marriage equality pioneers) that was designed to provide an election wedge issue for the GOP in 1996. Neither DOMA nor DADT were necessary for full equality.

But what they unwittingly did, in the wake of the AIDS catastrophe, was re-focus the American mind on the question of homosexuality in a new way. By framing the issue as we did – against the full force of the gay rights establishment – we were able to create a dialogue that helped change how people saw homosexuals. From seeking protection and sexual freedom (both legitimate goals), we had painted ourselves into a corner. By instead demanding responsibility along with rights, we moved dramatically to the center. By embracing the conservative goals of responsibility, mutual care, and service to others which defined the marriage and military battles, we redefined the issue on terms that were both true (that is who we gays are, by and large) and much more politically persuasive. Yes this took time. And backlashes are inevitable. But I wouldn't go so far as to claim that DADT and DOMA were positive developments. Both were a function of cultural panic. Now we know just how misplaced that panic was.

(Illustration by Mike Rosulek)