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Ask the White Guy: What Changed Obama's Mind About Gay Rights?

The White Guy says that President Obama's recent efforts to promote the civil rights of the LGBT community may have been influenced by the clear and passionate testimonies of Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about gay and lesbian service members.

Luke Visconti's Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.


Why do you think there was a change of heart on Obama's part [regarding the Defense of Marriage Act]?


This week we were treated to the president deciding not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) because he feels it's unconstitutional. If it's true that this decision reflects a change of President Obama's heart regarding LGBT people, then I would give credit to Admiral Mullen as the person who likely influenced him.

At the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln wanted to repatriate freed enslaved people. I think Frederick Douglass changed his heart. I don't think President Lyndon Johnson had a particular affinity toward Black people when he became president; in fact, his record in the Senate would indicate the opposite. But in the end, he had a burning passion for civil and human rights. I think the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a lot to do with that.

I've never heard a more clear and passionate understanding of what civil and human rights for LGBT people mean to our country than Admiral Mullen's testimonies to Congress. I think his initial statement in February 2010 shaped the discussion—and his final testimony in December 2010 was a beautiful expression of the ideals expressed in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Admiral Mullen is a great leader and a great American, in my opinion. He is a keeper of the flame of our Revolution.

I think his words speak most eloquently:

February 2, 2010:

Mr. Chairman, speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.

For me, personally, it comes down to integrity—theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.

December 2, 2010:

My personal views on this issue remain unchanged. I am convinced that repeal of the law governing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is the right thing to do. Back in February, when I testified to this sentiment, I also said that I believed the men and women of the Armed Forces could accommodate such a change. But I did not know it for a fact. Now, I do.

And so what was my personal opinion is now my professional opinion. Repeal of the law will not prove an unacceptable risk to military readiness. Unit cohesion will not suffer if our units are well-led. And families will not encourage their loved ones to leave the service in droves.

I do not discount for a moment the findings in the Johnson-Hamm survey which indicate resistance to repeal by those in the combat arms and irregular warfare communities. I do not find these concerns trivial or inconsequential. Nor do I believe we can afford to ignore them. Given that this reluctance arises from the ranks of the very troops upon which much of the burden of these wars has fallen, we would do well to pay heed and to move forward in a deliberate and measured manner.

Whatever risk there may be to repeal of this law, it is greatly mitigated by the thorough implementation plan included in the study, the time to carry out that plan, and effective, inspirational leadership.

These are the things I know for a fact. These are the things the study tells us. Now let me tell you what I believe.

I believe our troops and their families are ready for this. Most of them already believe they serve or have served alongside gays and lesbians. And knowing matters a lot. Those who said they knew they were serving with a gay or lesbian were consistently more positive in their assessment of the impact of repeal across all dimensions —cohesion, effectiveness, retention, even privacy concerns.

Our families feel the same. Most of our spouses know at least one gay or lesbian and very few of them believe repeal of the law would have any effect on family readiness.

This tracks with my personal experience. I've been serving with gays and lesbians my whole career. I went to war with them aboard a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam. I knew they were there. They knew I knew it. And what's more, nearly everyone in the crew knew it. We never missed a mission, never failed to deliver ordnance on target. Readiness was not impaired. What mattered most, what made us a crew, was teamwork and focus on our combat mission.

Back then, of course, it was a different time. Society on the whole wasn't as accepting or as tolerant as it is now. So, we didn't speak of such things or of how little it really mattered that the Sailor next to you was gay. But America has moved on. And, if you look closely at this study, I think you'll find that America's military is, by and large, ready to move on as well.

Should repeal occur, some soldiers and Marines may want separate shower facilities. Some may ask for different berthing. Some may even quit the service. We'll deal with that. But I believe and history tells us that most of them will put aside personal proclivities for something larger than themselves and for each other.

There is a special warrior bond in combat, a bond formed not by common values, as some have claimed, but rather by the common threat of the enemy, hardship and peril.

"Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly," writes J. Glenn Gray in his book, Reflections on Men in Battle, "not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger."

It is those greater dangers that still motivate the heroism and comradeship our troops exemplify today.

That's why I believe the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will pass with less turbulence—even in the combat arms world—than some predict. In fact, it may be the combat arms community that proves the most effective at managing this change, disciplined as they are. It's not only because our young ones are more tolerant; it's because they've got far more important things to worry about.

The experiences of other militaries would seem to bear that out. Our study looked at 35 other militaries that chose to permit open service, including those of our staunchest allies. In no instance, was there widespread panic or mass resignations or wholesale disregard for discipline and restraint.

Some will argue we are different, of course. None of these foreign armies face the unique global demands we do. And none are charged with the leadership roles we bear. True enough. But many of them fight alongside us in Afghanistan today, and they fought with us in Iraq. Gay or straight, their troops patrolled with ours and bled with ours. They have certainly shared with ours the fear and the loneliness and the horror of combat.

I don't recall a single instance where the fact that one of them might be openly gay ever led to poor performance on the field. My sense is that good order and discipline, far from being cast to the winds when one of these governments changed the policy, was actually reinforced and re-emphasized.

It's clear to me that our troops expect the same. They expect that whatever change we make to the current policy will be accompanied by rigorous training and high standards of conduct. In fact, the report indicates that one of the factors distressing to those who oppose repeal are fears that new policies will not be implemented fairly, evenly and dispassionately.

Let me be clear: nothing will change about our standards of conduct. Nothing will change about the dignity and the fairness and the equality with which we treat our people. And nothing will change about the manner in which we deal with those who cannot abide by these standards. The military is a meritocracy, where success is based on what you do, not who you are. There are no special classes, no favored groups. We may wear different uniforms, but we are one.

There are some for whom this debate is all about gray areas. There is no gray area here. We treat each other with respect, or we find another place to work. Period. That's why I also believe leadership will prove vital.

In fact, leadership matters most. The large majority of troops who believe they have served in a unit with gays and lesbians rate that unit's performance high across virtually all dimensions, but highest in those units that are well-led. Indeed, the practical differences between units in which there were troops believed to be gay or lesbian and those in which no one was believed to be so, completely disappeared in effectively-led commands.

My belief is, if and when the law changes, our people will lead that change in a manner consistent with the oath they took. As one Marine officer put it, "If that's what the president orders, I can tell you by God we're going to excel above and beyond the other services to make it happen."

And frankly, that's why I believe that in the long run, repeal of this law makes us a stronger military and improves readiness. It will make us more representative of the country we serve. It will restore to the institution the energy it must now expend in pursuing those who violate the policy. And it will better align those organizational values we claim with those we practice.

As I said back in February, this is about integrity. Our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well.

It is true there is no Constitutional right to serve in the armed forces. But the military serves all the people of this country, no matter who they are or what they believe. And every one of those people, should they be fit and able, ought to be given the opportunity to defend it.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, I believe now is the time to act. I worry that unpredictable actions in the court could strike down the law at any time, precluding the orderly implementation plan we believe is necessary to mitigate risk. I also have no expectation that challenges to our national security are going to diminish in the near future, such that a more convenient time will appear.

And I find the argument that war is not the time to change to be antithetical with our own experience since 2001.

War does not stifle change; it demands it. It does not make change harder; it facilitates it.

There is, to be sure, greater uncertainty today and our forces are indeed under stress. And I know the Chiefs are concerned about this. So am I. But I do not believe the stressors currently manifesting themselves in the lives of our troops and their families—lengthy deployments, suicides and healthcare—are rendered insurmountable or any graver by this single policy change. Nor do I believe that simply acknowledging what most of our troops already know to be true about some of their colleagues threatens our ability to fight and win this nation's wars.

Quite the contrary. Today's young leaders are more attuned to combat effectiveness than in any of the last three decades. Tempered by war, bonded through hardship, the men and women of the United States Armed Forces are the finest and most capable they have ever been. If there is a better opportunity or a better generation to effect this sort of change, I don't know of it.

One final word. And with all due respect, Mr. Chairman and Senator McCain, it is true that, as Chairman, I am not in charge of troops. But I have commanded three ships, a carrier battle group and two fleets. And I was most recently a Service Chief myself. For more than 40 years I have made decisions that affected and even risked the lives of young men and women.

You do not have to agree with me on this issue. But don't think for one moment that I haven't carefully considered the impact of the advice I give on those who will have to live with the decisions that that advice informs. I would not recommend repeal of this law if I did not believe in my soul that it was the right thing to do for our military, for our nation and for our collective honor. Thank you.

The Conversation

Diversity Leaders: 6 Things NEVER to Say About Disabilities

How can you adopt a vocabulary that's inclusive and respectful of everyone? This EY exec, an advocate for people with disabilities, shares her insights.

"The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." —Mark Twain

As diversity leaders, we understand that disability is just another kind of difference, like culture, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. We recognize that diversity is a valuable source of insight and adaptability, generating better business ideas and high-quality service. Differing abilities are a part of that healthy diversity. It's our business to promote inclusiveness throughout our organizations and to advocate for policies and programs that support it.

In building an inclusive culture, we're on the front lines and need to be visibly living our organizations' values every day. It's important that we set the tone not only in what we do and say, but how we say it—in formal messaging as well as everyday conversation. This is where even diversity leaders can get stuck.

Sometimes inclusive language can seem a bit cumbersome, but with a few simple changes each of us can make a significant difference—helping to promote an inclusive culture while setting an example both inside and outside our organizations.

Here are six ways never to talk about disabilities:

1. Never say "a disabled person" or "the disabled." Say a person or people "with disabilities."

Put the person first. A disability is what someone has, not what someone is. For instance, "mentally ill" is less respectful than "person with mental-health issues." "Retarded" is never an appropriate term. Say "intellectual disabilities" or "cognitive disabilities."

2. Never use the term "handicapped parking." Use "accessible parking" instead.

Handicapped parking is still in use (e.g., when referring to parking placards), though the word "handicapped" is offensive and has been virtually eliminated in most other contexts. Remove it from your organization's vocabulary completely by using the term "accessible parking." (It's also more accurate, as accessible describes the parking and handicapped does not.)

3. Never use the term "impaired." Use terms such as "low vision," "hard of hearing" or "uses a wheelchair" instead.

Though it may be used in legal contexts, the word "impaired" can be offensive, as it implies damage. Many people with disabilities do not see themselves as damaged, but simply as different.

4. Never say "hidden" disabilities. Say "non-visible" or "non-apparent."Many disabilities are not apparent, such as serious illnesses or chronic health conditions, sensory limitations, or mental-health and learning disabilities. When referring to these disabilities, avoid using hidden, as it has negative connotations, implying purposeful concealment or shame.

5. Whenever possible, don't say "accommodations." Say "adjustments" or "modifications."This can be tricky, as accommodation has a specific legal meaning and must be used in certain contexts, like policy or government communications. However, accommodation suggests doing a favor for the person who has a disability. An accommodation is a workplace or work-process modification made to enable an employee to be more productive. It is necessary and not a preference or privilege. The terms adjustment and modification capture this idea without suggesting a favor or special treatment, so are preferable whenever specific legal terminology is not required.

6. Never use victim or hero language; describe situations in a straightforward way.

Don't use language that portrays people with disabilities as victims, such as "suffers from," "challenged by," or "struggles with." Say "someone who uses a wheelchair" or "wheelchair user," not "wheelchair-bound" or "confined to a wheelchair." On the flip side, don't use heroic language when people with disabilities complete everyday tasks and responsibilities. People with disabilities don't see themselves as inspiring simply because they're going about their daily lives. We all have challenges—working around those challenges is not heroic, it's just human.

What Terminology Should I Use?

It's worth noting that even in the disability community (yes, that is how advocates for inclusion of people with disabilities refer to ourselves), different people are comfortable with different terminology. Some are fine with the descriptor "disabled," which is in common use in the United Kingdom. Others may freely use "impaired." However, as diversity leaders, it is our job to promote behaviors that make all people feel valued and included. Knowing that some people are offended by these terms, I feel strongly that the most inclusive course is to avoid them and adopt a vocabulary that feels respectful to everyone.

As champions of diversity, we have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to set standards for how our people, organizations and society speak and think about people with disabilities. By shifting our language, we can help shift perceptions and promote the culture of inclusion that is the backbone of healthy diversity in all aspects of life.

— Lori Golden, EY, Abilities Strategy Leader

Golden leads EY's internal initiatives in the Americas to create an enabling environment and inclusive culture for people working with disabilities.

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