Remember the name: Major Margaret Witt, United States Air Force. She will undoubtedly be remembered as a trailblazer for women in the gay rights movement.
For 19 years Major Witt served with distinction as a flight nurse, tending to the wounded and the critically ill. She received medals, was featured in a recruitment flyer, and served tours in the mid-east where — among other notable achievements – she helped evacuate wounded troops and earned a special commendation for saving the life of a Defense Department worker.
And for all this, Major Witt was honorably, but involuntarily discharged two years short of the time needed to receive retirement benefits. Her offense: A relationship with a same-sex partner for six years. Commanders had received an anonymous tip in 2004 which led to an investigation and ultimate discharge under the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” ban on gays serving in the military.
Major Witt did the right thing. She sued. This month, the 9th District Court of Appeals overturned that decision and ordered her reinstated, saying the military cannot automatically discharge people because they are gay. While this does not strike down “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it puts the military in a position of reevaluating the policy.
Nearly 12,000 gay men and women have been dismissed from military service since 2001, for no other reason than their sexual preference. In times of war and the looming threat of international terror, when our soldiers are stretched to the brink of exhaustion and recruitment is at critical levels, this makes no sense. Regardless of what some may feel about homosexuals, these people are fellow Americans who have served honorably in many important assignments; medics, radio electronics, air traffic control, combat and much more. At least three hundred possessed special language skills such as Arabic, which is vitally important in the war on terror.
There was a time when homophobia was commonplace in America. Such myths and fears have long been cast aside as gays have openly assimilated as valuable citizens with enormous contributions to our society including sports, entertainment, business, government service, journalism, education and law enforcement. Though long overdue, people have come to realize that homosexuality is not a threat.
I’ve always likened gays to southpaws. As with gays, approximately ten percent of human beings are born left handed. It can’t be explained. It’s just the way it is. There was a time, not so long ago, when ignorant school officials — public and private — forced left-handed students to become right-handed by tying their left arm behind their backs. Being lefty was unacceptable. Fortunately those days are long gone. And so are the days of homosexual censure.
I admit, there was a time during my 1958-1964 military service that I would felt uncomfortable. Our society has come a long way since then, and so have attitudes, like my own.
A recent CNN poll found that 79 percent of Americans feel that homosexuals should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Only 18 percent said they should not. Virtually every major pollster has found that Americans have increasingly become more accepting of gays, with the majority agreeing that homosexuality is innate and not a choice.
The Clinton administration, “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was introduced in 1993, and may have been best idea for it’s time. That time has past. However, gays in the military are still persona non grata. It’s not only counter-productive to retain a policy that categorically excludes a minority group from serving in our armed forces, it is fundamentally wrong.
The 9th District Appellate Court’s ruling was no surprise. The military must abolish “don’t ask, don’t tell,” lift the ban and welcome homosexuals in the United States armed forces, much the same as we have eliminated draconian laws and policies that once excluded blacks from equal status in mainstream America. Meanwhile, the trend is fait accompli. Whether today, or next year, abolishing the ban is going to happen. Why put off the inevitable?
Major Witt summed it well. “Wounded people never asked me about my sexual orientation. They were just glad to see me there.”