In the early days of his presidency, Bill Clinton suggested the military should re-examine its policy of dishonorably discharging gay men and lesbian women.
There were those who argued, and continued to believe, that his "mistake" was a key element in the loss of moderate support, which, in turn, resulted in the loss of control of the House of Representatives two years later.
Ultimately, "don't ask, don't tell" became the policy of the military, a policy that left men and women who were risking their lives to defend this country vulnerable to discharge if they failed to successfully hide a key part of their identity.
It was wrong. But for almost two decades, it was also political dynamite: too hot to touch.
The assumption was that integrating gay men and lesbian women openly into the military would somehow diminish its effectiveness and destroy morale. The assumption was that anyone who got near the issue would pay for it, unless they came from a super-safe liberal district.
The assumption was wrong.
Give credit to the military leaders who, in the past year, studied the issue and concluded that forcing people into the closet did not make the military more effective, and that allowing them to be open about their sexual orientation would not destroy morale.
No one — gay or straight — is allowed to sexually abuse others. But there has never been even a shred of evidence that abuse is more common among homosexuals than heterosexuals.
Give credit to the courageous men and women who served this country bravely even as second-class citizens, and who then had the courage to "come out" publicly and serve as shining examples of what was wrong with the policy.
Give credit to Leon Panetta, the new Secretary of Defense, who on Friday announced that gay men and lesbian women would, henceforth, not have to live in fear that their sexual orientation would be revealed even if they didn't tell.
And give credit to President Barack Obama, who was not afraid to play with what some believed was still dynamite.
I remember, three decades ago, when the gay men who were working with me on the Democratic platform were "afraid" that a convention floor fight about whether our antidiscrimination policy should be amended to include the phrase "sexual orientation" would do them more harm than good.
Those men are now dead, lost to AIDS, but their determination, and their understanding that change takes time as well as courage, provided the foundation for where we are today.
No American, gay or straight, black or brown, male or female, should ever be denied the privilege to serve our country because of who they are. I am grateful to every one of them; grateful that they are willing to put their lives on the line; proud of their patriotism and their courage.
Thanks to their courage, thanks to the honesty of military leaders, thanks to the wisdom of Secretary Panetta and the determination of President Obama, gays and lesbians will be able to serve proudly and openly in the military.
Sixty days after Panetta's order, "don't ask, don't tell" will join the policies discriminating against African-Americans and the rules unduly limiting the careers of servicewomen as a discredited chapter of our history.
There are many things wrong with Washington today. There are many issues on which politics triumphs over principle. For many years, this was one of those issues.
Obama ran on a platform of hope and change. In this, he delivered on that promise.
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