This month was the first time in 456 years that the total lunar eclipse fell on the Winter Solstice; it was also the first time I've ever agreed with Sen. Richard Burr.
Burr, a North Carolina Republican who usually votes against what is fair and good, was among 65 senators to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Kay Hagan, the state's junior senator, who had cast a dastardly vote against the DREAM Act, voted to repeal the 17-year-old law as well.
Weeks before, while the military was conducting studies and polling soldiers about their views on allowing openly gay and lesbian soldiers to serve, I thought of Al, a man I knew in Texas.
Several years ago, I wrote a story about Al and his long-time partner, who had been murdered. I spent many hours with Al, and during one of those long interview sessions, I learned he had served in the military during the Korean War. That is, until he confided in a military chaplain that he was gay. Soon word got out, presumably through the chaplain. Al told me he was given a general discharge and booted out of the military—but not before he was raped by several soldiers as punishment for his sexual orientation. Because Al's discharge was not termed "honorable," he was denied veterans' benefits for the rest of his life.
Gays and lesbians have served in the military since there has been a military. Like many of their straight counterparts—as paramedics, combat soldiers, linguists, intelligence analysts, etc.—they are responsible for saving the lives of thousands of troops. I challenge anyone whose life—or whose loved one's life—was saved by gay or lesbian soldiers to regret their service or valor.
The repeal marks a significant, albeit tardy, victory for human rights. However, before gays, lesbians and their straight allies unfurl their rainbow flags, it's crucial to remember how far we have to go. One of the most striking ironies of the repeal is that the federal government now permits openly gay and lesbian soldiers to die—and kill—for their country. But in most states, these same soldiers cannot come home and legally marry their partner. Their love is still legally forbidden and invalid. The partners of these soldiers may not be allowed to make health-care or end-of-life decisions for their loved one, should he or she return from the war physically or mentally wounded.
Until gays and lesbians are given the same equal rights as heterosexuals enjoy, the repeal, while a landmark victory, is still not enough.
Unfortunately, the failure of the other major human rights legislation underscored the power the haters wield. The Senate voted 55-41 against the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship to young undocumented immigrants who, as children, had been brought to the U.S. by their parents. After fulfilling a two-year commitment in college or the military, among other rigorous requirements and restrictions, they could apply to become U.S. citizens.
Sen. Hagan has long opposed the DREAM Act and voted against it. I understand that she represents 9 million North Carolinians, many of whom oppose the legislation. But that is a hollow defense. What if the majority of N.C. voters supported reinstating the poll tax? The re-establishment of internment camps? The revocation of women's voting rights? Would she cave to the haters? She did this time.
To be clear, the DREAM Act is not amnesty. It is not a free ride. Those phrases are code intended to rally the bigoted base in its hatred of the "other."
Hagan has stuck by her well-rehearsed mumbo-jumbo about how she instead favors "comprehensive immigration reform," a nebulous idea that has never gained traction even during the most productive congressional terms.
And before we tackle "comprehensive immigration reform," whatever that may be, we should seriously examine the United States' inconsistent immigration policy. For example, Cuban immigrants receive more generous treatment under U.S. law than Haitians or other foreign nationals, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
I fully support Cubans' immigration to the U.S.; they suffer under a totalitarian government. When I visited Cuba in 2000 (coincidentally, at the height of the Elian Gonzalez controversy), I met many Cubans who spoke—privately and in hushed tones—about the daily oppression of living under the Fidel Castro regime. Police or soldiers are stationed on many street corners as a reminder of government power. People live in poverty. There are food shortages. One couple invited a photojournalist and me to eat at their home, but they did not have enough food for themselves or their young girls.
However, the economic and political conditions in some parts of Mexico are every bit as oppressive and dire as those in Cuba. In 2001, I traveled to a Mayan indigenous village in Chiapas where the survivors of a December 1997 massacre had settled. As part of a power struggle between the Mayans and the government, 15 children, 21 women and nine men had been killed by state-funded paramilitary forces as the people gathered in a chapel. When I visited there, a military checkpoint was still stationed outside the village, which had no electricity or running water.
I cannot begrudge men and women in that circumstance for taking their children and illegally immigrating to the U.S. I cannot begrudge the parents for wanting to build a life here. And I cannot begrudge the children for wanting to continue that life in America.
I also understand that the U.S. cannot accept everyone who wants to cross its borders. But the U.S. should not accept intolerance as a guiding principle of immigration policy. And in killing the DREAM Act, that's precisely what we've done.