The Dream That Dare Not Speak Its Name: Civil Rights Rhetoric and the Fight for Gay Military Service

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM
Delaware Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Steve Estes, Sonoma State University
In this presentation, I will sketch out the ways that gay activists and allies attempted to draw the analogy between black civil rights—particularly the racial integration of the U.S. military—and gay rights to challenge the ban on openly gay military service from the 1970s through the 2000s. This line of argument was not always persuasive, but it remained the subtext for the fight to lift the ban even after the passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and it continues to underlay many arguments for gay rights today. I believe that activists ultimately had more success when they talked about gay rights as “civil rights” in a general sense, instead of consciously drawing the analogy between the black civil rights movement and gay liberation or between racism and homophobia.  In fact, I think this was one of the main lessons that gay activists took from the original battle that produced “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” From the mid-1990s on the racial analogy became a subtle backdrop to more “race-neutral” calls for gay civil rights. The post 9/11 campaign to lift the ban further buried this analogy, emphasizing the practical needs of war in the Middle East as reasons for military policy reform. By exploring the ways that the analogy between black civil rights and gay rights worked in the fight to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I hope to inform civil rights activists, gay rights activists, and scholars in ongoing struggles for equality.
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