Last Saturday was bittersweet for gay immigrants. The Senate voted to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – the Clinton-era policy which barred gay troops from serving openly – while dashing any hope of passing the DREAM Act, which would have paved a way to citizenship for millions of foreign-born youth who are no less American than their native-born cousins.
Progress in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights should nonetheless be celebrated, not only by the LGBT community and its allies but by immigrant communities too. Certainly those among us who straddle both groups have some reason to cheer.
“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” discriminated against lesbians and gays, some of whom are foreign-born or second generation immigrants. Its demise offers an opportunity for immigrant communities to see and take pride in their gay daughters and sons who defend their country with honor, honesty and integrity. The work and collaboration required to finally repeal the policy show how minority communities partner for shared goals.
The Immigration Policy Center reports that about 115,000 foreign‐born women and men serve in the U.S. armed forces – eight percent of the 1.4 million military personnel on active duty. The Migration Policy Institute adds that among these immigrant troops, 23 percent are Filipino; 10 percent are Mexican; 5 percent are Jamaican; 3 percent are Korean; and 2.5 percent are Dominican.
Under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” women and minorities were disproportionately affected. Among the 619 troops discharged in 2008, 209 were women and 279 were minorities.
Lt. Dan Choi is perhaps one of the most outspoken advocates against the discriminatory policy and an exemplar for gays and immigrants alike. The son of Korean immigrants, he served in Iraq as an Arabic translator and jeopardized his military career for principles imbued by his family and the military.
Choi and other out service members of color have challenged notions immigrants might have about gay people. They have also inspired many Americans, newcomers and native-born, young and old. Now more lesbian and gay soldiers will be able to set examples and change hearts and minds within their own ethnic communities.
Along with many other members of the LGBT community, Choi also advocates for immigrant rights. Indeed, major LGBT groups have rallied alongside immigrant rights groups and vice-versa. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” has ended because of the hard work and support of allies of the LGBT community.
Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates supports passing the DREAM Act, for “military readiness,” just as he encouraged the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Full equality for LGBTs and immigrants has a way to go, but together progress can and will happen by being open to each other and marching forward shoulder-to-shoulder.
Guest Columnist Erwin de Leon is a Ph.D. candidate at the New School and a research associate at the Urban Institute. As an LGBT and immigrant rights advocate, he has been interviewed by various outlets including the Washington Post and the Michael Eric Dyson Radio Show. He has contributed to the Washington Blade and keeps his own blog on minority issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.