After "Don't Ask Don't Tell"

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. This morning on The Brian Lehrer Show, Commander Beth Coye, former naval officer and author of My Navy Tooreacted to the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy affecting gay servicemen and women.

Since retiring from the military, Beth Coye has been a tireless advocate for repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." It's surprising to note that one of her childhood friends has also been one of her biggest opponents: John McCain.

On Saturday, the Arizona Senator gave what is likely among the last in a long line of speeches against allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Of all the politicians in Washington, McCain has been the most recalcitrant about repealing DADT, by turns citing the need for further studies, consultations with top brass, and the status quo as reasons not to abandon the policy just yet. While frustrated by the foot-dragging, Coye says that a lifetime in the military lets her see where McCain and others are coming from.

I undertand the military and its conservatism, and if you think about it, because of our policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the military just didn't discuss this subject. That's the way people change their views, we listen, we educate each other as Americans, and we could not do that in the military. Therefore, the Pentagon study showed what we already knew, which was that seniors aren't quite ready to do this. It's a matter of, as they say, security issues vs equality, but it really isn't a versus, because in this case we've proved that it's not a matter of security.

Whatever the facts, McCain isn't alone in his opposition. General James Amos, the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, railed against repeal last week, criticizing President Obama and arguing that ending the DADT policy would confuse and distract troops, thereby endangering them in combat. Coye doesn't buy it, offering that any complications in the wake of Congress' decision would be short-lived.

He's coming from fear, and he fears that—and maybe it's a rightful fear—that there's going to be anti-gay in his Corps, and there's going to be emotions, and they're going to be bullying gay people if they come out. I think that's part of it and somewhat true. However, it won't be true for very long because our rules and regulations prevent bullying and all that.

A caller named Christopher had just finished four years of service in the Marine Corps, and he admitted to keeping his sexual orientation a secret the entire time. He was optimistic that integration wouldn't be an uphill battle.

I think it will go completely smoothly. The culture of the Marine Corps is very top-down. People don't get to say, "I don't like this policy." There are many marines who probably would not like to see women serving in the Marine Corps. However, the wish of a commanding officer is the equivalent of a direct order, and marines follow orders.

Christopher went on to point out the irony of a Marine Corps Commandant criticizing a sitting president for what amounts to issuing orders.

I thought it was very unseemly, and I can say this now because I got out last Friday, that General Amos came out and contradicted President Obama on his policy of repealing DADT, because what he did in effect was contradict the Marine Corps' own policy of obeying the chain of command.

Another former serviceman named Ricardo called in to express reservations about a conflict-less transition. He seemed concerned that General Amos wouldn't be the last officer to thumb their nose at repeal.

I think it will go as well as it is implemented. If we take the steps that we took with desegregation where commanders actually implemented the policy, then I think it will go really smooth. But if commanders take the attitude, "Well, this is what the civilians are doing in Washington," then I don't know.

Nobody had any illusions about the battle being over. Christopher, Ricardo and Coye all recognize that there's work left to be done. For Coye's part, she stressed the continued need for patience, respect, and dialogue as one of the most enduring civil rights debates draws to a close.

I try not to get angry, I don't think that's the answer. I think it's more—and this is what happened—keep talking, keep explaining, and that's our democracy.