By Anthony Woods
In the 17-years since Congress enacted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” supporters of the discriminatory law have defended it by claiming it is essential to maintaining unit cohesion and military readiness. Some go further adding that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military will undermine the beliefs of military chaplains and conservative Christian troops by forcing them to condone homosexuality.
While all of these claims are equally unsupported by facts, honest research, or unbiased studies, the religious argument is unique in that it lies at the root of most arguments against gay and lesbian equality in the military.
I too am a practicing Christian. I regularly attend church, serve in my community, donate to charity and have been serious about my faith since age 14. Throughout my adult life, my faith has played an enormously positive role – especially during difficult and dangerous deployments to Iraq. Unfortunately, my religious beliefs also prevented me from coming to terms with my sexual orientation for almost a decade.
When I was finally able to reconcile my faith with the fact that I was gay at age 27, it marked a turning point in my thoughts on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” To me it came down to a simple question:
If God accepted me and I accepted myself – why shouldn’t the military?
I don’t believe we should have a military that is willing to fire well-qualified gays and lesbians if they refuse to lie about themselves in order to adhere to the religious beliefs of a few. Conservative definitions of marriage and family are somehow being linked to national security and I feel obligated to fight against it.
I was kicked out of the military in 2008 for doing what I think most Christians can agree is a fundamental tenant of their faith – I was kicked out for being honest.
Had I been allowed to serve openly, it would have had no more of an impact on my conservative peers than straight service members who had pre-marital sex, got divorced, or used alcohol – all of which also occur regularly in military life.
However, the arguments of religious conservatives can’t be easily dismissed. Christian organizations like the Center for Military Readiness and the Family Research Council play the lead role perpetuating the myth that homosexuality is incompatible with military life.
The sad truth is homosexuality is not compatible with their narrowly defined personal beliefs and our military is kicking out qualified troops because of it.
If the culture wars of the 80s and 90s, and George W. Bush’s effective use of marriage equality as a wedge issue taught us anything, its that the influence of conservative Christians extends well beyond the issue of gays in the military.
Harvard Kennedy School’s Dr. Timothy McCarthy, famed historian of American social movements, describes the checkered past of many religious conservatives. “Progressive social movements–from abolitionism and the fight for women’s suffrage to black civil rights and the struggle for LGBT equality–have always had to contend with religious conservatives who oppose a more inclusive and equitable society.”
It’s necessary to point out, however, that religious people have also played a vital and sometimes adversarial role in pushing back on religious conservatives and shaping modern society.
The priest at the Episcopal Church I attend in Washington DC attributes the sometimes adversarial relationship between progressive and conservative Christians to fundamental differences in theology.
For many conservative Christians it’s a generally held belief that God spoke to man, inspired the Bible and provided the world with all of the information we needed to know and understand him. This worldview, for example makes it extremely difficult to accept women and members of the LGBT community can serve as priest and spiritual leaders, and gays and lesbians can be afforded equal rights to serve in the military and get married.
For progressive Christians like myself, many of us believe that God interacted with man, inspired the Bible, but provided us the ability to continue to grow in our understanding of him and how he wants us to treat one another. This less literal approach to understanding God results in the ability to accept ideas like evolution, women’s equality, and the notion that God accepts and loves gay people and straight people alike.
Today, nearly eight out of 10 Americans believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military and, for the first time, a majority of Americans believe they should be allowed to marry legally.
Since my discharge in 2008, I’ve continued to live by another Christian tenant – the need to stand up for those who can’t defend themselves like the 65,000 gays and lesbians still serving under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I’ve joined millions of Americans who believe defending your country shouldn’t require you to compromise values like honor and integrity. With our ranks swelling in the fight for LGBT equality, I’m optimistic that supporters of an equal and just society will ultimately prevail.
Anthony Woods is a 2003 graduate of West Point and Veteran of the Iraq war. He was discharged from the Army under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2008.