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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Why ‘Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell’ Must Go

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 1, 2009

A reading:


Congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania has written:


Last week, an Army board recommended that Lt. Daniel Choi be discharged from the Army National Guard under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Choi - a West Point graduate, Arabic speaker, and Iraq veteran who has demonstrated an exceptional commitment to the nation's values - was the most recent example of the thousands of servicemen and women affected by the policy.

I understand that the military must follow the law as it's written. But Choi's discharge further underscores the need for President Obama and Congress to work together now to change this discriminatory policy.

In both the current and the previous Congress, I have been a cosponsor of legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" and permit gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members to serve their nation openly, honestly, and honorably.

"Don't ask, don't tell" is discriminatory and detrimental to national security. It was a flawed compromise that should never have been enacted, and I continue to regret every instance of its enforcement I witnessed as an officer in the Navy.

During my 31 years in the military, I served alongside and in command of men and women of all backgrounds, beliefs, and identities who fought valiantly and selflessly. When a man or woman puts on a military uniform, he or she immediately assumes a commonality of purpose with all fellow service members. I cannot and will not turn my back on anyone who serves this nation honorably.

I can remember several instances when outstanding servicemen, with all the qualities I could ever ask for as a commanding officer, approached me about these issues. I did not want to lose any of these sailors. My only thought was that the nation needed their skills, talent, and patriotism.

Failing to treat everyone with the same level of dignity is counter to our national values and to the concept of brotherhood and sisterhood that is essential to the spirit of our armed forces. How can we say someone who went to war for his country doesn't deserve equal rights?

Since 1993, more than 11,000 men and women have been discharged from military service under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Rather than receiving the gratitude of their nation, they had their careers ruined and their reputations assailed.

I am not alone among former officers in wanting to end discrimination in our armed forces. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and more than 50 other retired generals and admirals believe it is time to end "don't ask, don't tell."

And the American people agree: 75 percent of the public favors repeal, according to a recent Washington Post report.

Moreover, our military is stretched to its limits by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We face a persistent threat of terrorism. And our modern military depends on highly skilled, meticulously trained troops, ranging from front-line soldiers to computer technicians to linguists. It jeopardizes our national security to dismiss exceptional service members.

As evidenced in Israel and more than 20 other nations that allow openly gay service members, changing our policy will not negatively impact our military readiness.

There are those in the Washington establishment who say that, even though repealing "don't ask, don't tell" is a worthy cause, we cannot act on it in the short term because of political considerations. I am aware of the numerous challenges facing Congress, but I wholeheartedly reject this excuse.

I understand that time is of the essence as we work on long-overdue reforms of our health-care and energy policies. However, once critical legislation on those issues has been passed, we must address "don't ask, don't tell." I will fight to overturn the policy this year.

This is not akin to highway appropriations or the acquisition of one weapons system or another. It is a civil-rights issue that concerns the ideals on which our nation was founded, and it cannot be ignored.

It is a matter of equal justice under law, human rights, and the honor of America's fighting men and women. Our president - our commander in chief - must be with Congress at the forefront in overturning this discriminatory ban.


The Sermon, by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz:


            On August 28, 1963, looking out at the hundreds of thousands of people before him, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said:


            “We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”


            “The fierce urgency of now.” Such a powerful phrase. It captures the essence of those moments in history when people long denied their rights refuse to sit and cower any longer.


            Or, as the President heard from the minister (the seminarian, actually) at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, when he attended services recently, in the context of the story of the rich man in the gospels who was too wedded to his possessions to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven: “Our God demands boldness from us.”


            (Must be something to have the President drop in on one of your sermons. The most famous person ever to do that to me was Orson Bean. [I bet most of you don’t even remember Orson Bean.] That was when I was in Vermont. I did have Andrew Wyeth come to funeral I did once, up in Maine. That was pretty cool.)


            But “Our God demands boldness from us,” the President heard. I, for one, hope the words sunk in.


            Certainly, the “fierce urgency of now” commands our attention on any number of important public issues: reform of our healthcare system; jump starting the economy; doing something about unemployment; a whole range of dangerous international issues, from Afghanistan to the nuclearization of North Korea.


            God knows, it’s not easy being President, and I have no doubts about the competence and the intelligence and the basic decency and deep patriotism of the man who currently holds that post.


            And in a democracy, the fact of the matter, for any of us, wherever we stand along the political divide, whether we’re on the Left or on the Right, is that we can’t get our own way, all the time, on every issue. Even more, we probably shouldn’t get our way all the time, not if it’s a real democracy, not if the system is working, not if all voices are being heard.


            But on some issues—those that cut to the very core of what freedom and justice is about—those that call into question basic civil and human rights—those that, from our particular religious orientation, focus firmly on defending “the inherent worth and dignity” of all people—then God—and justice—and democracy—demands more than the audacity of talk. As far as addressing the civil rights concerns of our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends, and relatives is concerned, the current demand is for boldness, and perhaps another Bible verse, this one from the book of Revelation, of all places, might have been an appropriate way to greet the President on that recent Sunday morning:


“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other!  But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!”


            Tough words, yes; perhaps even a bit histrionic. (They are from the book of Revelation, after all.) But a necessary wakeup call, perhaps, to an administration that seems awfully reticent about keeping the pledges it has repeatedly made to its gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender constituents.


During the presidential primaries, then-candidate Obama promoted himself as the biggest defender of gay rights since Harvey Milk. He would be a "fierce advocate" for the rights of homosexual Americans, he promised. He even out-gayed Hillary Clinton, telling gay and lesbian voters that while she was for a partial repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, once he was President, he'd get rid of the whole damn thing. In the early days of his administration, he said, he would repeal it, once and for all.


Then, about a year before the November election, the Obama campaign invited Donnie McClurkin, a homophobic gospel singer who claims to have been "cured" of his own homosexuality, to lead a series of concerts in the South in order to woo the black vote. The gays were not amused, but most people just shrugged their shoulders, and muttered, “That’s politics.” So the GLBT community forgave the Big O until a year later, when now President-elect Obama chose evangelical preacher (and well-known homophobe and crusader to repeal gay marriage in California campaigner) Rick Warren to give the inaugural prayer. (In clergy circles, that’s sort of like getting the Nobel Peace Prize.) Again, many gay folk expressed their ire, but then, as a sort of consolation prize,  the President-elect asked Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, to offer the opening prayer at the gala concert on the Mall in Washington, the day before the inauguration. This was supposed to show, openly, that President-elect Obama still cherished the support of the GLBT community. (The only problem was that Rev. Robinson’s prayer was scheduled fifteen minutes before the concert actually began; before the international news feed from HBO beamed the proceeding around the world; before, even, the main sound system at the Mall has been turned on. Speak, but don’t be heard. Appear, but don’t be seen. Sounds an awful lot like: “Don’t ask, don’t tell” to me.)


When a few people howled in protest at Bishop Robinson being snubbed in such a rude manner, the President-elect’s advisors continued to whisper sweet nothings about how glorious the future would be on the morrow, once the new President was finally in office.

            “But,” as one commentator has put it, “a funny thing happened on the way to equality. Rather than clouds opening up and angels descending from on high, Barack Obama became president and things never got better for the gays. In fact,” he says, “they got decidedly worse.”

          On taking office, Obama immediately announced that he was doing away with the Clinton-era concept of special assistants who served as liaisons to various communities like gays and Latinos. He then went ahead and appointed special liaisons to some of those communities anyway—like the Latinos-- but not to the gays. At the time of the inauguration, the White House Web site detailed a full half a page of presidential promises to the gay community;  overnight those pledges were shortened to three simple, general sentences. Gone, overnight, were five of the eight previous commitments the President-elect had made, including the promises to repeal both Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy in the military and the to do away with the damnable Defense of Marriage Act. Now, senior White House officials started telling the media that they just weren't sure when, if ever, the President would follow through on his promises to the gay community. There was too much other, “more pressing” business with which the President had to deal to take up such (relatively) “minor” matters.


Then, finally, on June 12 of this year, our President had his Department of Justice file a brief in defense of  the Defense of Marriage Act-- the same law he had once called "abhorrent." In that brief, filed ironically enough on the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia (the monumental decision which outlawed state bans on interracial marriage—and which, of course, legalized the marriage of President Obama’s own parents in every state across our land)-- members of this (supposedly) “most liberal administration in American history” compared love between two men or two women to incest and pedophilia.


For some reason, members of the gay and lesbian community, unreasonable whiners that they are, were for some reason “offended” by being compared to incestuous beasts and child molesters. So to make amends the President signed (with his left hand; he is a left-handed President, if not as left-leaning as some of us might have wished) an executive memorandum directing some federal agencies, but not others, to provide some benefits, but not others, to some gay federal employees, but not others, at some undisclosed time in the future. (The only problem is that federal agencies already had the right to provide these benefits to gay employees -- and several already do.)


As Dr. King reminds us: This is no time take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Not when people’s lives and careers are at stake. Not when the human dignity and the human rights of our fellow Americans continue under assault. No, justice demands boldness. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater (bet you thought you’d never heard that from these lips—and Barry was looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope): Audacity in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.


And soldiers for justice and equality—just as soldiers in the army—can’t just talk a good fight. There comes a time to act.


To act like Harry Truman. A man as imperfect and limited in his perspective as any of us are. I don’t think that every decision Harry Truman made during his presidency was correct. But Truman was, at least, a man who know how to make a decision, and who knew that being President, and leading a people, meant oftentimes acting boldly, and letting the chips fall where they might.


On June 28, 1947, President Truman addressed the Thirty-eighth Annual Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP), and said, "It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our efforts to guarantee a freedom and equality to all our citizens… And when I say all Americans,” Give ‘Em Hell Harry concluded, “I mean all Americans."


And then, he didn’t dither. He didn’t wring his hands like a vacillating Hamlet. He didn’t form a blue ribbon commission to study the issue to death. He didn’t even “urge” Congress to act. He acted.


About a year later, on July 26, 1948 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which immediately ended racial segregation within the ranks of the United States military forces. The written document contained six paragraphs, and fewer than 250 words:


First, it declared the President's policy of equality of opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.


Second, it created a Committee on Equality of Treatment in the Armed Services, not to study the issue, but to oversee implementation of the President’s directive.


Third, the Executive Order authorized the Committee to determine what further changes would be necessary to carry out the policy of full integration in the armed services.


And fourth, it directed all executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government to cooperate with the Committee in its work.


            Harry Truman was no flaming radical. He was no heavyweight intellectual, who had attended elite colleges and received all manner of advanced degrees. (Indeed, did you know that Truman was the last American President, so far, who never went to college?) He was, in many ways, a typical politician, a Southern politician at that, with roots deep in the political machine of his day, with his own share of personal prejudice and narrow-mindedness.


            But he knew an injustice when he saw one.


            He knew that men and women should not be denied the opportunity to serve their country, to the fullness of their abilities, because of some particular aspect of how they had been born. Would that our own leaders would act so boldly today, in pursuit of those very same principles!


            Since 1993, nearly 15,000 American service men and women have been discharged for the “offense” of being homosexual—and for no other reason. (Indeed, the current Commander in Chief has himself presided over nearly 500 of these discharges.) 15,000 good, decent lesbian, gay, bisexual service members who have steadfastly pledged to defend our county and our Constitution while being forced into silence about who they are and whom they love. When their sexual orientation is discovered, they are ejected from the armed services, not with the thanks of a grateful nation which they deserve, but with shame and disgrace and severe prejudice against their future prospects for career and employment.


            This is a disservice to our country, and a disgrace to all we hold dear as Americans. It is also a direct challenge to our basic religious values.


            This world is too dangerous to refuse to accept into the service any talented, capable man or woman—whatever his or her particular sexual orientation might be.


            Service is not about one’s sexuality. It is about one’s grit and fortitude and talent and ability. And those are traits of character which gay and lesbian Americans have every bit as much as heterosexual Americans. It is as basic as that.


            For love lifts us up, whatever form it takes. It ennobles those who love, and it ennobles those whom they love. When we let GLBT men and women be who they are truly, we all take another step on our journey toward true and deep humanhood.


A couple of weeks ago, no one but Dick Cheney came out in favor of gay marriage. Dick Cheney. Not the anti-Christ, politically speaking. But close.


            But whatever his failures as a political leader, Dick Cheney loves his daughter—who is a lesbian, and who is in a committed, long-term relationship with her partner. Dick Cheney knows his daughter, and loves his daughter, and knows that she deserves the right—not just as an American, but as a human being—to live her life, and be her own self, and love whom she is called to love.


            That he loves his daughter is enough to get even Dick Cheney into my Universalist heaven!


Our choice when it comes to Don’t Ask/ Don’t Tell is that clear, it seems to me: to allow people who want to serve, and who are capable of serving, to do so.


            We must refuse to continue to push our gay brothers and lesbian sisters any longer into the offensive pit of the closet; we must refuse to demand that they not be—openly and proudly—who they are. That is what the stakes are here. Opening up military service to out and proud gays and lesbians will not just give us a stronger armed forces. It will make all of us better as people. And it will represent one more step along the road of our precious American journey toward freedom.



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