I've struggled to explain at times why the repeal of ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' takes such overwhelming priority on my personal to-do list for gay equality.
I am, after all, about the furthest I could be from being a military man. I don't fit well into hierarchical organizations so, unsurprisingly, I don't follow orders well.
My nearest connection to actual military service comes through my family and even that is fairly distant. My paternal grandfather was fortunate enough to be born in 1911, making him too young for World War I and too old for World War II. My maternal grandfather was a member of the ''Greatest Generation,'' part of the U.S. forces in France, an experience he never spoke too much about, although my understanding was that he didn't see much in the way of direct combat.
My father was drafted into the Marines in the late 1960s, an experience he never spoke too much about, either. My birth at California's Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base turned out to be the event — according to family history — that helped ensure he didn't make a trip Vietnam.
So there is no grand tradition of military service in my family, though there certainly was (and is) a healthy respect for those who serve, a respect that I share. I've seen friends and cousins leave for the Army and come back different, generally for the better. They're treated differently once they've served, a level of respect that they may never have earned otherwise.
I realize that this deference to military service is a burr for many people on the progressive left who distrust the Pentagon and consider its actions, and even existence, suspect. But the fact remains that that deference is there and, as our society has seen through the integration of races and gender in the military, the deference can be transformative in how we conceive of being Americans.
Watching Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates sitting before the Senate Armed Services Committee making the political — and moral — case for repealing DADT was disconcertingly emotional. I remember the 1993 Senate hearings that led to the implementation of DADT, with the incessant references to showers and ignominious tour of submarine bunks by then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D).
This was something different, something that signals we've reached some lofty goals for equality in our society. Unfortunately, we may not have reached them politically — even as I write this, the Senate is still wrangling over whether or not there will be a vote on repeal, and if Republicans will filibuster. As encouraging as Gates and Mullen have been, the antics of our elected government has been as disappointing. If you weren't cynical about your government before, you're certainly justified in being so now.
But it's a fight worth having and, should we lose this particular battle, a fight worth continuing through whatever avenues we can. We all know that gays and lesbians already serve honorably — only the wildest of anti-gay bigots bothers to claim otherwise at this point — the only question is honesty. Being allowed that honesty is a key step to having gay and lesbian lives considered a full part of the American identity and, just as importantly, help grow support for the other two items of the triumvirate gay agenda, marriage and employment.
Not all of us will want or need to serve in the military, but all of us will benefit when those who desire to serve can do so with the respect they deserve.