Gay, Sir, and ready to serve

The military service row was cathartic in the US - and may yet be in Britain, says Andrew Sullivan
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The Independent Online
Just because it is a cliche that Britain often follows American social trends doesn't mean it isn't also true. In the case of the fevered public discussion of homosexuality, the parallels are becoming too uncanny to dismiss.

Four years ago, the trauma of outing deeply split the gay population in America and forced the question of homosexuality on to the front pages. This year, Britain followed almost exactly: outing polarised the gay community, and ironically, forced many conservatives to rally behind closeted homosexuals. People who before would never have dreamt of talking honestly about the subject were forced to concede the existence of gay men and women at all levels of society - and sometimes to sympathise with them. The simple existence of the debate subtly began to corrode the discretion that is the bulwark of discrimination.

But in the United States, the outing controversy was merely the prelude to a much more transformative event two years ago: the issue of gays in the military. This was the debate that single-handedly wrested the issue of homosexuality from being the preserve of the counter-cultural New Left, to being an issue for society at large. For the first time in US history, gay rights were not simply an amusing or horrifying cultural sidelight. Homosexual equality was seen as a serious, central and vital public issue.

Indeed, for a while, it was the vital public issue. It helped to define the beginning of a presidency; for months it dominated every political discussion. As a result, today in America the homosexual question is understood differently than it was five years ago.

Yes, the US military finally won its battle to persecute, stigmatise and hound gay servicemen and women with exemplary service. And in Britain, too, as yesterday's ruling showed, the courts are likely, for the time being, to side with the military and generations of entrenched fear of homosexual personnel. But in the very fight over possible change, something deep and important occurred in the way Americans thought of homosexuals. The same is surely beginning to happen in Britain.

In the military debate, the American public was able to see for the first time that gay men and lesbians were not at the margins but at the very heart of America (just as they are at the very heart of Britain). And they emerged as often strikingly conservative people. One of the most moving elements of the debate in America was the way in which so many gay soldiers persisted - in the face of cruel and irrational discrimination - in their love of the military, in their deep patriotism, in the values that most conservatives cherish. In any other minority group, these people would have been regarded as conservative heroes. And for all principled conservatives, they surely are.

Moreover, by conceding the exemplary service of gay men and lesbians in the armed services, the military admitted what homosexuals and their families had known for years: that homosexual orientation has no effect on the contribution people can make to society. As even the military admits, discrimination against homosexuals is not based on a just assessment of performance. It is based on a fear. It is not designed to reward someone for the work they have done, but to penalise someone for a characteristic utterly irrelevant to the job at hand. It violates, in short, the first principles of fair play. For the first time, gay people were seen not as challenging fundamental American (or British) values; they were seen as defending them.

This dynamic turned the American gay rights movement upside down. Suddenly, homosexuals were not cultural freakniks, bent on bringing down the establishment; they were banging on the door of the establishment, wanting to get in. The old leftists, anti-military relics of the Sixties, looked on in dismay as traditional minority politics changed fundamentally. Homosexual military personnel didn't, after all, petition for equal access to the military, as blacks and women had done before them; they already were in the military. They simply demanded an end to wilful, governmental persecution.

In the past few years this argument has begun to change the way homosexuals interact with society. Where before, homosexuals entered into society and said: "Let us into your military, and protect us from hostility; let us into your business, so we can earn our living without discrimination; let us into your schools so we can affirm our self-worth without fear of rebuke; free us from the oppression of the traditional family so we can live our lives in protected isolation"; now in America they increasingly enter public life and declare: "We are your military and have fought your wars and protected your homes. We are your businessmen and women, who built and sustained this economy. We are your teachers; we have built your universities and trained your scholars. We are your civic leaders, your priests and vicars, your writers and inventors, your sports idols and entrepreneurs. We need nothing from you, but we have much to give back. Protect us from nothing; but treat us as you would any heterosexual."

It is a powerful case, because it happens to be true, and because it resonates so strongly with Anglo-American notions of fairness, equality of opportunity and inclusion. No longer is the gay debate framed in terms of promiscuity, sexual practices, discretion, revolt. It is framed in those terms which dominate the real lives of most homosexuals: equal treatment under the law, social responsibility, honesty.

The next phase of this transformation is the arrival of the issue that will likely rock America in the years ahead: equal access to marriage. Like the military, marriage is an inherently conservative institution. By dragging the debate on to conservative territory, gay men and women have essentially called the conservative bluff: to deny homosexuals basic rights is to discourage all those values conservatives claim to uphold. In Hawaii last year, a state supreme court decision upheld the constitutionality of gay marriage. Within two years, as every other state is forced to recognise marriages legal in Hawaii, the issue is likely to transform the homosexual debate further.

In some ways, perhaps, the gay rights movements should be renamed. From now on, call it the gay responsibilities movement. Homosexuals are demanding not protections and rights so much as equal responsibilities: the responsibility of conducting our emotional and sexual lives on the same basis as heterosexuals; the responsibility of serving our country honourably and openly in the military; the responsibility of committing ourselves to one other person for perpetuity in marriage. A new political language has been born. It is the language not of separate cultural existence, but of equal human dignity. It echoes with all the resonance of the noblest of causes in our recent history. And it will surely, eventually, win.

The writer is editor of the US weekly 'The New Republic'. His book 'Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality' will be published by Picador in October.

Hamish McRae's column will appear tomorrow.