How ending DADT will spread the idea of equality for people of all orientations among parts of the US population which have previously been most homophobic.
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise which allowed gays and lesbians to be members of the US military as long as they concealed their orientation will officially end tomorrow. This is a great triumph not just for gays and lesbians but for all people who want to live in a society that accords QUILTBAG people their full rights.  This transition will help pave the way to that society.
Homophobia has been waning swiftly among certain sections of the population: for people who are more educated and have a higher socio-economic status, being QUILTBAG is often actually treated as kind of cool, having its own cachet as a way of being “special.” Younger people are also more in favor of QUILTBAG rights; marriage equality is generally considered only a matter of time among the under-30 set in most surveys.
But the military draws primarily on people from the lowest-educated and lowest-SES portions of the population. Even in times of recession, the military is seen by many as a back-up option if a “real job” doesn’t pan out. It is precisely these young people, who come from populations likely to stigmatize QUILTBAG people most severely, who could potentially carry on traditions of homophobia for another generation.
Ending DADT means that these young people will likely experience serving with a gay or lesbian airman, soldier, or sailor in the course of their enlistment. They will learn to see that person first and foremost as a comrade, a fellow servicemember, rather than a nebulous and dangerous Other. And that will make all the difference.
In the study the military did to assess the potential impact of ending DADT, the respondents who said that they didn’t think having gays and lesbians in their unit would be a problem were overwhelmingly those who knew or suspected that they had served with gays and lesbians in the past. Getting to know these people personally, seeing first hand that QUILTBAG folks are people just like anyone else, was the biggest factor in defusing and dispersing homophobia.
Now that service members can be “out” and open about their orientation, a lot more people will be having a first-hand experience of working with someone gay or lesbian. Some of them will be disturbed by it, just as some people were disturbed when the military desegregated. This may be the primary way that people from poorer, less-educated communities come into contact with openly QUILTBAG people, which is why it is such an important step forward in civil rights.
(I know the end of DADT does diddly-squat for trans* folks. But in the communities that lump all QUILTBAG people together, lessening homophobia is the first step to lessening transphobia, and the movements in support of trans rights can build on this foundation.)
Even some older people who hold the military in high respect may be receptive to evidence that removes “reasons” for homophobia. When their sons and daughters come home and tell them that their comrades are all people, equally valuable, and when they see the first openly gay and lesbian service members being decorated for valor, some members of the older generation may find their positions on QUILTBAG rights shifting.
Hate groups such as the American Family Association have been screaming their heads off about all kinds of doom, from the disintegration of the military to more natural disasters. And some conservative people in the military are going to complain that their “right” to discriminate against others is being infringed. I fully expect that the first photos of public displays of affection involving someone in uniform will be splashed all over the conservative news, and the first photos of a gay or lesbian couple marrying with one partner in uniform will be cause for enough frothing at the mouth to make some conservative sites look like they’ve been occupied by a mad barista with a passion for steamed milk.
The only reason these people have to be afraid is if their predictions don’t come true. If members of the American military discover that gay and lesbian people are, well, people, then this crusade of hate will have lost a major stronghold of institutionalized discrimination that protected entirely too much homophobia in the general population. If gay and lesbian people are as awful as these hate-spouters insist, that will become clear, and they will be banned again from the military. But if – just if – gays and lesbians are people too, and not demented perverts out to destroy the world, then a whole swath of the population will learn that, and these hate-propagandists will lose a significant portion of their audience.
Finally, this change is going to force a decision on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. I predict that DOMA will be repealed within five years, ten at the most. I hope it’s sooner, and I hope that the Obama administration’s strategy of not defending it will enable that transition as soon as possible. If that doesn’t happen, though, someone will sue to force the military to grant spouse benefits to people who are legally married in their own state. Whether overtly or not, the end of DADT will be a stepping-stone to the end of DOMA.
The military, like the public school system, is a place where people learn what it means to be American. With the end of DADT, we take another step towards teaching our citizens that respecting civil rights – the very rights the military fights to defend – is part of what it means to be American.
 QUILTBAG = queer/questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans*, bi, asexual, and gay. Coined at the Slacktiverse as the most inclusive non-cis-hetero acronym possible.