Editorial: Honor the fallen in the civil rights war too

On Memorial Day, we will again honor Americans who died in service to their country. Many of these men and women were, of course, gay, serving under that shameful compromise known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and in deeper secrecy before that.

With that doctrine’s repeal in late 2011, the current president and vice president and the immediate past vice president all endorsing same-sex marriage, not to mention the cold reality that gays and lesbians are among our war dead, this is an opportune time to remember those who loyally served a country that offered them only compromised civil rights in return.

So to the gay and lesbian men and women in uniform, fallen and not, and to their survivors, thank you for your sacrifice. Not only have you shown bravery on the battlefield, but inside your own ranks, serving a system and politicians that not only didn’t fully accept you. We know things are better nowadays, but they are still not good enough.

Even though the gay rights battle won’t play out at the local level, per se, government agencies can lend a hand by taking a symbolic stand. We are not big fans of public agencies wasting time on endless proclamations, but every now and then such pieces of paper are warranted.

Along those lines, the Orange County Board of Supervisors missed an opportunity to send a positive message to gay and lesbian constituents. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the supervisors declined for the second year in a row gay activists’ request to recognize Harvey Milk’s birthday in honor of the slain gay rights leader.

We understand their reluctance to clog up meeting time with proclamations, and we also realize that the Republican Party is opposed to gay marriage so there’s a political piece there, but Milk’s legacy transcends the marriage issue and, really, partisanship. Milk deserves recognition alongside the nation’s other slain civil rights leaders.

Milk, a U.S. Navy veteran, died in service during a different kind of war, one for the same civil rights heterosexuals take for granted every day. It is because of Milk’s groundwork that today’s gay troops no longer have to hide. It is because of Milk that fewer gay men and women are beaten or killed. And, as recent polling shows, it’s because of people like Milk that more Americans support gay marriage than those who oppose it.

Many established Republican leaders, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, support gay marriage; in fact both came out in favor of it long before President Obama, a Democrat, did. Opposition to gay rights seems counter to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party’s healthy desire to keep the long nose of government out of people’s lives, so we see little harm in the supervisors giving a symbolic nod to Milk.

We hope that in 2013, as they will likely be asked again, that the supervisors recognize Milk’s birthday. It would go a long way if they showed the world how much Orange County has changed, how it’s much more tolerant than its reputation.