DADT battle won, but culture wars far from over

With the repeal of the 17-year-old discriminatory ban on the open service of lesbian and gay soldiers in the United States, the movement for equality took one giant step forward. The end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) clearly places momentum with gay rights groups and gay-friendly politicians and puts archaic senators like John McCain to shame. Their opposition to reform will grant them a permanent mark on their historical record that will shroud their legacies.

The repeal of DADT marks a possible turn toward inevitable equality for LGBTQ Americans. The question then becomes: will we see a decline in the use of homosexuality as a dividing issue in the electoral culture wars? When eight Republicans vote for the repeal of DADT – essentially ceding the issue as a possible election issue in 2012 and beyond – it begs the question of whether it points to a larger admission of defeat on the part of social conservatives.

In all nation-states that legally recognize same-sex marriage, the allowance for open military service was a precursor to marriage equality. The repeal of DADT not only marks a step toward for more equal citizenship for the LGBTQ community, but also a step backward for those politicians that wish to propagate gay rights issues for purposes of securing votes within their constituencies.

Polls conducted during the lead-up to the repeal vote indicated that almost eight in ten Americans approved of DADT repeal. The trend in polls regarding support for same-sex marriage continues to trend upward and if it continues those that oppose marriage equality will be a distinct minority in America.

Furthermore, there is a court case to determine the constitutionality of a California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriages: Perry v. Schwarzenegger. The case is currently sitting in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and is widely viewed as heading to the United States Supreme Court, possibly as soon as 2012. At that time, all eyes will be on “centrist” jurist Anthony Kennedy whose swing-vote on a highly divided court could put the final nail in the coffin of the gay rights culture war for better or for worse.

The point is, sooner or later, the endgame for gay rights is inevitable and DADT repeal will likely be viewed as one of the catalysts for getting there.

What then is happening to the culture wars in America? Since 2004, when same-sex marriage and abortion were openly used as wedge issues to drive social conservatives to the polls, the intensity and frequency of that rhetoric has started to dissipate. For all intents and purposes, social issues took a distant backseat in both the 2008 presidential election and 2010 midterm elections.

Republican lawmakers, like Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, are moving away from opposition to gay rights, possibly because they see that it is not as effective in securing votes as it used to be.

The culture wars aren’t ending. They’re just shifting. The DREAM Act – an immigration bill aimed at granting illegal immigrant minors a path to permanent residency if they complete a university degree or two years of military service – was voted down by the Senate on the exact same day that DADT was repealed. Combine this with the draconian measures passed against immigrants in Arizona earlier this year and you begin to see where Republicans are shifting the cultural battles.

I intend not to demean the trajectory of the gay rights movement from here onward or suggest that the path to marriage equality is a simple walk up the judicial ladder. However, I would suggest that from a legislative perspective and especially from a Republican-policy perspective, it is becoming easier to instil fear in the electorate about scary illegal immigrants looking to harm the fabric of America and take their jobs, than to poke and prod at a divide between homosexual and heterosexual Americans.

The fact that Republicans are starting to cede ground – even limited ground – on the gay rights front of the culture wars might actually end up being beneficial and speed up the path towards inevitable equality for LGBTQ Americans. As such, it is important to both keep up the momentum on this front, but also be attuned to what battles are going to be fought next and which minority groups will be caught in the fray.

It would be nice if the repeal of DADT marked the end of culture wars for America. Unfortunately, there is a time-tested creed in America. Everyone is created equal, until your rights are taken away to pander to reactionary hysteria and then given back to you by legislators years later to secure votes. They then have the gall to pat themselves on the back for doing what should have rightly been done in the first place. No, the culture wars are alive and well.

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