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Clarke Cooper, an openly gay army reserve officer, is seen in his office in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Clarke Cooper, an openly gay army reserve officer, is seen in his office in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Globe Editorial

Prejudice melts away in the U.S. military Add to ...

Prejudice dies hard. But it does die, if responsible people insist on it.

Gays and lesbians will soon be serving openly in the United States military, and the decades-long turmoil around the issue will quickly seem a ridiculous anachronism, after President Barack Obama signs a bill Wednesday killing the noxious "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

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Canada allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military beginning in 1992, after a challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and recruitment and retention did not suffer. In Britain, which changed its policy in 2000, also as the result of a legal challenge, only three of 250,000 armed-services members quit as a result. Australia also noticed no impact when it made the change in 1992, according to a RAND Corp. study cited by the Pentagon, which produced its own study on how to deal with issues related to integration. (For instance, should there be separate bathrooms for gays? No, said the Pentagon study, pointing out that separate facilities would have degraded gays, much as "separate but equal" drinking fountains degraded blacks.)

Yet how can the impact of such a controversial change be so small, when 65 per cent of Canada's military members said (prior to the change) that they did not want to bathe or share quarters with gays, and 35 to 45 per cent opposed working with them?

It's a classic example of how myth, stereotype and bigotry survive when tolerated, and melt away when laws change and leaders say and do the right thing.

Much of the opposition is around alleged "disruption" - that some service-people won't accept gays in their midst. Former president Bill Clinton's policy of don't ask, don't tell, handed those service-people a veto power over equality. During the 17 years of the policy, 13,000 service-people were let go, and some colleges barred on-campus recruiting in protest, leading to shortages of troops and lower recruiting standards. Now that's disruption.

Similarly, before president Harry Truman declared racial integration to be military policy in 1948, opposition in the ranks was as high as 90 per cent. For the most part, though, integration went smoothly.

The repeal of don't ask, don't tell is a historic affirmation of the dignity of gays and lesbians, or as one gay soldier put it, a removal of a knife from his back. With strong leadership, doing the right thing will prove to be surprisingly easy.

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