It's become a truism that American attitudes on gay rights are changing at a rapid clip. Supporting civil unions -- now a compromise position -- almost endangered the career of then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as recently as 2000. And that was Vermont. Now, a mere nine years later, the Pentagon appears to be signaling that it's ready to give up on the "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy regarding gays in the military.
The evidence is mainly in the form of an article denying DADT's usefulness, published by the National Defense University's Joint Forces Quarterly. The essay, written by Col. Om Prakash, argues that there is “no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly.” Prakash, by the way, works in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the essay has received an award that goes out under the name of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Michael Mullen.
This isn't the only sign that top-ranking members of the military are done with DADT. Though the military was once a preserve of particularly fierce resistance to gay rights, a parade of officials has said that it’s time to revisit or repeal the policy. Recently, discharged gay Arabic linguist Lt. Daniel Choi has been invited to give a couple of guest lectures at West Point. The military is even out in front of President Obama himself on this. Though the president ran as an opponent of the policy, he's been slow to act on his promise, apparently fearful of squandering political capital.
There's movement in Congres, too. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, an opponent of the policy, has sent letters to the president and the secretary of defense, urging them to "bring your recommendations to Congress" on DADT.
DADT, of course, has become a symbol of the ongoing mainstream acceptability of homophobia and anti-gay discrimination, but it's worth remembering that it originated as a compromise. By the time of its passage in 1993, Democrats, including then-President Clinton, had been thinking about trying to make a change for some time, but faced heavy opposition from two semi-overlapping sources. Conservatives fought the idea of any toleration of gays in the military, arguing that they were representing the interests of servicemembers themselves.
Of course, even with the military brass apparently on the side of repeal, conservatives are unlikely to come around. As with healthcare, the alignment of most of the interested parties around a rough consensus is probably inadequate to move the GOP. At this week’s conservative “Take Back America” conference, attendees were told that at least 200,000 members of the military might quit rather than serve alongside gay people.