Israel's army shows us we have to fight discrimination by changing attitudes, not just laws.
The Obama administration has finally repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Clinton-era law that prohibits openly gay people from serving in the military. LGBT activists and people who generally care about human rights have declared victory after a years-long struggle. But what happens after September 22, when we officially do away with the law? Well, then the real work begins: shifting people's attitudes.
Perhaps we can learn something from Israel's army, which already allows gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly. Dr. Guy Shiloh of Tel Aviv University has just followed up on the only study examining the effects of gays in the Israeli military, which shows that despite the armed forces' open-door policy, gay soldiers "continue to experience anxiety and harassment surrounding their sexual orientation." Most participants in the study reported verbal abuse, either direct and indirect, and many have suffered physical and sexual abuse because of their orientation. Many soldiers said that even though they were openly gay as civilians, fear of discrimination forced them back into the closet once they enlisted in the military.
Legislation is not enough, Shiloh says. The only way to change behavior and perception is to educate straight members of the military, and possibly mandate sensitivity classes. As an example, the study points to Europe, where some militaries actively recruit in the gay community. The message is less, "You can serve in our army," and more, "It's your army too."
Any social justice activist knows that fighting for anti-discriminatory legislation is only a fraction of what needs to happen to incite real change. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed, violence and bigotry directed toward African Americans didn't magically vanish. When the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, women's salaries didn't suddenly match men's. The repeal of DADT is a great symbolic victory, but in order to physically and emotionally protect our gay soldiers, we need to remember that the work is far from over.