A Small Step Back in a Relentless March Forward
New York, NY, 2:14PM….Just as the most valuable gifts often come in small packages, most great legislative achievements arrive in surprisingly banal ways.
In the United States Senate, this usually takes the form of a vote to end a filibuster. Like ‘haberdashery’ and ‘snorkel’, filibuster is far too glorious a word to be wasted on the narrow definition with which it is stuck. A filibuster is a parliamentary maneuver employed by a minority of legislators to extend debate on a matter before the Senate ad infinitum. In the past, this meant that Senators read from telephone directories or, less grippingly still, the Old Testament for days on end until their colleagues would finally relent and move on to less controversial terrain. There is method to this madness, however: the filibuster was designed to prevent tyranny by the majority — a noble objective before politicians began defiling it. These days, the threat of a filibuster is enough to force the Senate to move on to other matters. A 60-40 vote is required to override a filibuster, a tough ask when you consider how difficult it is to get just two Senators to agree on anything beyond this sentence:
“I should be President”.
This is why Obama finds it difficult to pass his agenda through the US Senate, despite the Democratic Party’s apparently comfortable 59-41 majority.
Just 30 minutes from now, the US Senate will vote to end a filibuster on the Defence Appropriation Bill which includes provision to end the ban on openly gays and lesbians from serving in the US military. The policy this vote aims to bring to a merciful end is widely known as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or by it’s tricky acronym, DADT.
DADT is a Clinton-era compromise which states that gay and lesbian soldiers can serve in the military as long as they lie about their sexual orientation when asked. In return, military commanders are forbidden from asking direct questions about a soldier’s sexual orientation, but presumably were free to enquire after musical theater recommendations, seek decorating tips or, in the case of suspected lesbians, request help to assemble Ikea furniture.
Even by the low standards of modern politics, especially in the US, DADT is astonishingly morally bankrupt. An outright ban on gays and lesbians, while wrong, is at least forthright in it’s bigotry. The enforced deception at the heart of DADT is despicable beyond mere discrimination; it is cynical, knowing and vile. According to opinion polls, most Americans have turned against the policy, but Obama and the Congress have delayed action. They clearly want to avoid the anti-gay with military command who — there’s no point beating about the bush –frighten the shit out of them. There are many reasonable-sounding political explanations for this, but it seems obvious to me that the kind of person who forges a successful military career is very much like the kind of person who deals out wedgies to, and steals lunch money from, the sortvof person who runs for School Council, and later Congress and the Presidency on the Democratic ticket. (Republican politicians, on other hand, arise from the ranks of those more aroused by, than scared of, schoolyard bullies for whom they gladly surrender lunch).
New York, NY, 4:31PM…The vote to end the filibuster went down 53-47. Not a single Republican — not even the two Senators from ultra-liberal Maine — voted to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Hardly a shock, really. There is an election in a few weeks and the gay lobby is hardly at the front of the queue when it comes to political pandering (I think we are just behind cycling enthusiasts and ahead of Scientologists).
The pair I encountered yesterday will be toasting today’s defeat for gay rights. But it is slim pickings these days for conservatives who yearn for a return to homophobic days of yore when gay-bashing was not merely legal but compulsory. Americans, even those who live in the shopping mall car-park that occupies that country’s giant midriff, have worked out that the failure to discriminate against gay people has not materially made them worse off and is unlikely to do so in the future.
This distinguishes the gay lobby from the other civil rights movements to emerge from the 1960’s. While gay men may pose a threat to masculine identity, we have no interest per se in the systematic overthrow of white male power (in fact, it turns many of us on). Instead, our collective aspiration can be captured in a single word: acceptance. For blacks and women, acceptance alone is a necessary but insufficient precondition to social and economic equality; for us, it is the magic ingredient from which flows openness, pride, freedom and the possibility of happiness. And — bonus! –acceptance grows exponentially as more and more people know more and more gay and lesbian people, because old prejudices can never withstand reality. A big fat gay virtuous cycle that no filibuster can possibly stall — let alone reverse.
*I wouldn’t dare speak for our lesbian sisters