Conduct unbecoming

A new report details the sharp increase in harassment of gays in the military.

Published March 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Despite an infamous murder, and a series of directives from President Clinton and the Pentagon, harassment of gays in the military more than doubled in the past year, according to a report released Thursday by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

The report, titled "Conduct Unbecoming," cited 968 incidents of harassment in the past year, ranging from taunts and physical assaults to the murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell at Fort Campbell, Ky., July 5. The figure represented a 142 percent increase over 1998, and stood five times the rate just two years ago.

The Pentagon responded cautiously, but on the same day the report was released, announced it was considering a policy change on one key issue -- whether gay service members can be guaranteed confidentiality when they confide their sexual orientation to a therapist. SLDN Executive Director Michelle Benecke hailed that as a tremendous first step.

"I'm concerned about the report," Clinton told reporters at a White House press conference. He had just learned of its existence and promised "appropriate action" after he and Defense Secretary William Cohen read it. He expressed hope that the branches' newly started training programs would improve that atmosphere. "If this report is accurate, I would expect to see a substantial improvement this year. Substantial."

Over at the Pentagon, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley offered the first possible movement on service members' ability to discuss their sexuality with doctors and psychologists confidentially. He said the current policy was ambiguous, with health care workers neither required to nor prohibited from turning in GIs who confided their sexuality. "We're taking a look and asking ourselves is that the right policy to have in place or should we take another look at that," he said. "So I don't know where that will go."

"That's excellent!" Benecke crowed. "That is really big news. That is the first time they have ever given a centimeter on that."

A small victory, perhaps, but "it's a very serious issue to our clients," Benecke said. "Medical- and mental-health people provide a real relief valve for service members in trouble. There are people who've been driven to suicide because there is no safe place for them to go with this secret."

Though Winchell's murder sparked outrage across the country and eventually thrust the issue of violence against gays into the presidential debate, the event apparently had little impact on the climate within the military. Though the murder was widely reported midway through the fiscal year covered by the report, harassment remained nearly constant throughout the period, with a slight increase in the six months after. In light of the dramatic increase from 1998, a flattening of harassment reports toward the end of the year was the most hopeful sign.

SLDN is the nation's chief legal support group available to defend gays in the military and the leading advocacy group against prohibitions on open-gay service. Because of the prohibitions against telling, the military has had difficulty compiling reliable data on the climate toward gays and SLDN's annual report is widely considered the leading benchmark.

Outside SLDN's reports, hard data on the extent of the problem has been notoriously hard to come by, with service members rarely willing to talk even to academics or reporters, regardless of confidentiality assurances. SLDN is known throughout the military as a safe underground network and serves as one of the few communication links to the outside world. The data reported Thursday is based on harassment reports made directly to the group by service members around the world.

There were a few hopeful signs cited in the report. "Witch hunts, physical abuse by investigators, and criminal prosecutions of lesbian, gay and bisexual service members have all subsided," it read. Specifically, discharges for homosexuality dropped 10 percent, after several years of steady increase. But the 1,034 discharges last year represented a 73 percent increase from before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" took effect.

And while the discharges have declined for men, they're on the rise for women. Females account for 14 percent of the force, yet represented 31 percent of the gay discharges in 1999, the highest percentage in at least 20 years. The Air Force continues to lead all services in gay discharges.

Benecke also expressed cautious optimism at some of the changes under way in the past six months. "I'm hopeful that the directives from the heads of each service might make a difference," she said. She offered mixed reviews of the branches' new training programs, with the highest marks going to the Army.

Quigley said he'd only begun to review the report, but that more specific data than provided in the past could be used more effectively. "We are hopeful that they can be as specific as possible," he said. "And with specifics, we can take action; we can do something and investigate further to verify the accuracy of their claim. In the past, they have been somewhat anecdotal in their findings. But if there are specifics, enough for us to actually do something with, we will."

"That report is chock full of specific cases they can act on," Benecke said in an interview later.

Quigley said the Defense Department had seen no significant increase in harassment in the figures it collects, but it is widely acknowledged that service members rarely report gay harassment.

In the wake of the Winchell murder, Cohen ordered the Pentagon's inspector general to conduct the first significant internal investigation of gay harassment, confidentially surveying 75,000 troops. The results are due back to Cohen on Monday, with a public announcement expected later this month.

SLDN preemptively attacked the integrity of that report Thursday, charging that the data would be unreliable and misleading, because many participants did not find confidentiality assurances convincing. The report specifically cited public statements by two high-ranking inspector general's officials. "Both said that they believed they were required to turn in gay service members who in the course of reporting harassment slipped up and inadvertently revealed that they were gay."

Charlie Moskos, author of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy and professor of sociology at Northwestern University, expressed surprise at the figures and wondered whether some of the increase could be attributed to greater reporting.

Though typically a chief antagonist to SLDN, Moskos agreed that such a stance could undermine the inspector general's investigation. "I think SLDN is correct in that position," he said. "That sounds very sensible to me. It's like confidentiality with a doctor."

The report said that harassment continued to surge because of lack of recourse and accountability. "Once a leader walks by harassment, that sends a signal to their soldiers that they pile on," Benecke said. "They effectively send an invitation to pile on."

Benecke predicted that harassment would continue until unit commanders began inflicting punishment. "Until leaders start to hold others accountable, [perpetrators] have absolutely no incentive to stop," she said.

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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Don't Ask Don't Tell Lgbt Pentagon