In the course of a day, how often do we hear "my wife" or "my husband"? If you are married, how often do you say it?
Are those not terms to indicate to whom one is bonded? In a recent training I attended, we went around the room with introductions and were asked to tell something significant about ourselves. Over half of the attendees started with their married status and number of children. Long relationships were applauded. What would have happened if I announced that I am a lesbian?
"Don't ask, don't tell" represents more than a military policy in the United States. It's a measure of our society's acceptance of GLBT relationships. It's very closely tied to the right to marry in that our society is struggling with accepting bonds between same sex couples as equal to the bonds between a man and a woman. The civil rights associated with those bonds are denied to same sex couples. If one is in the military, you cannot even talk about it openly.
I often hear that our society has changed a lot and that most people don't care who you are sleeping with. Polls would indicate that is true. Most of those people, I would argue, prefer that you don't tell and they won't ask. They won't openly try to harm you, but they may not applaud if you announce in self introductions to strangers at a training session that you are in a same sex relationship.
Who you are sleeping with has been a long standing introductory question in our society. Are you married? How long? How many children do you have? Isn't that all about asking who you are sleeping with?
And tell the truth - if you ask someone who is 30, 40 or 50 years old - Are you married? Do you have children? And they answer no to both - would you ever follow up with the question - Are you gay or lesbian? How many gay or lesbian people would feel comfortable telling someone new - "No, I'm a lesbian or I'm gay"? It would be even more unusual to get the answer - "I am bi-sexual or transgender."
Interestingly, I do have straight friends that I feel confident would be really cool if someone answered that they were gay or lesbian. They would be comfortable, however, because they know gay and lesbian people. They have a positive frame of reference and would very likely quickly begin a chat about their lesbian friend. But I am not sure these same friends are advocates for striking the military's Don't ask, don't tell policy. And I am not confident they are all open advocates for GLBT civil rights. I'm only certain that they would try to do no harm.
As a lesbian, I would have a very difficult time answering questions from a virtual stranger about married status and children with, "no, I'm a lesbian." That difficulty comes from a negative frame of reference - an expectation that the person on the other side may not have a positive reaction.
Generally, we are uncomfortable on both sides of the introduction. Don't ask, don't tell has been the socially acceptable way of handling things. The announcement of same sex commitments as engagements or marriages or in any other manner is just not accepted as a routine conversation in the same manner as intersexual relationships.
At the core, this issue is about civil rights. Federal courts are hearing the arguments and ruling that facts do not support a need to protect society from GLBT people. Just as the court rulings supporting civil rights for blacks in the late 50's and into the 60's were ahead of legislation and society's acceptance of equality, the courts are now ahead of society's acceptance of equal rights for GLBT people.
Don't ask, don't tell has to go away for those on both sides of the conversation. The next time I am asked by a stranger if I am married or have children, I really should answer - "No, I'm a lesbian." Hmmm. I wonder if I will.