Inside a lesbian "witch hunt"

For too many women in the military, homophobia plus sexual harassment equals a reason to get out.

By Fiona Morgan

Published June 8, 2000 4:00AM (EDT)

Airman 1st Class Deanna Grossi had dreamed of joining the Air Force since she was a child, when her parents worked for the force as civilians. "I know it's corny and everything," she says, "but the whole idealistic fight for freedom thing really hit home for me." So at 19, she left her home in Sacramento, Calif., and joined the force. But after enduring a difficult two years of harassment, accusations that she was gay and a humiliating investigation into her personal life, Grossi finally left the Air Force.

Grossi is one of the few names listed in a recent national report on the rising number of men and women who have left the U.S. armed forces because of anti-gay harassment. The report, released in March by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gays and lesbians in the military, details Grossi's long ordeal at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. Last year, 14 DLI service members reported that they had been harassed and investigated. Of those, 12 women at DLI, including Grossi, said they were drawn into a "witch hunt" into their personal lives last year and were eventually discharged.

"All I was trying to do was my job, because I volunteered for that position," Grossi says. "I didn't realize they put you under a microscope for that position and use a different standard than for everybody else." Now she is 21, looking for another career, one that will be her second choice.

Since the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was implemented in 1993, discharges of gays and lesbians have been on the rise. In 1999, the armed forces discharged 1,034 people for being gay -- up 73 percent since the policy went into effect. One startling aspect of the SLDN report is its revelation that women were disproportionately discharged under the policy. Though women make up only 14 percent of active forces, they made up 31 percent of those discharged under "don't ask, don't tell." Last year represented the highest percentage of women discharged under the military's gay policy in two decades.

The Pentagon responds that people are leaving voluntarily -- outing themselves to their command in order to obtain an honorable discharge. Advocacy groups say people are taking that exit as a last resort, when harassment becomes too much to bear.

Many see this rise as a strange irony, since the policy was designed by President Clinton and his advisors to allow gays and lesbians to serve legally, if not openly, in the military, which had officially barred them from service for many decades.

If Grossi's experience stands out, it might be because the Air Force has the highest rate among the services of women discharged under the gay policy -- 37 percent of its gay-related discharges last year were women. The Army follows with 35 percent, the Navy with 22 percent and the Marine Corps with 16 percent.

Why do women face more of a threat under the policy? SLDN co-executive director Michelle Benecke offers an explanation in the report. The disproportionate impact on women is "due to lesbian baiting, a form of anti-gay harassment where women are accused of being lesbians for retaliatory reasons, such as rebuffing men's advances, regardless of their sexual orientation." Turn down a male officer for a date, and there could be hell to pay.

"That happens frequently," Grossi says. "It happened to almost everyone I know."

Not everyone reads the statistics the same way. "I don't think you can assume that harassment against gays has risen" based on the rise in discharges, insists Stephanie Gutmann, author of "The Kinder, Gentler Military." Her controversial book posits that the armed forces' efforts to incorporate women have lowered standards and opened the door to rampant political correctness. She concludes that those misguided efforts have effectively weakened the forces' ability to fight.

In research for the book, Gutmann says, she found that the perceived problems of sexual harassment and anti-gay harassment are both overblown. "I don't doubt that there is harassment of gays and lesbians," she says, but military people she encountered told her that the far more important issue is whether people can do their jobs. Sexuality, straight or gay, gets in the way. "Basically, sex is a problem in many military units because they're very small, and they live in very intimate conditions 24 hours a day. You've got to take it someplace else."

That reasoning supports the premise of "don't ask, don't tell." But the intersection of anti-gay attitudes and anti-female attitudes in the military is a difficult one to police. Sex is one issue, but it could be that women are paying for a problem that really belongs to their male colleagues, because of the way the policy is implemented.

The military is facing a bumpy cultural transition these days, from a bastion of manhood into an entity that publicly accommodates women and discreetly (at least in theory) accommodates gays.

But just as gays and lesbians are reluctant to report anti-gay harassment for fear of being investigated, women are reluctant to stand up to sexual harassment for fear they will be called lesbians.

Trickier still, as the SLDN report demonstrates, the actual sexual orientation of a woman -- not to mention her sexual conduct or abstinence while on active duty -- doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the rumors that are spread about her, or the kind of scrutiny she is put under.

But Gutmann offers another explanation for the high number of gay discharges. "Everybody wants to get out of the service right now -- there is a rush for the doors. And people are getting out any way they can." Telling one's superior officer that one is gay is the quickest way to get an honorable discharge, Gutmann says.

A teenager when she joined up, Grossi found herself in a situation common to many young people, gay and straight: She had not yet figured out her sexuality. "Honestly, at the time I didn't know ... about myself. When I actually figured out what I was feeling, I realized that I couldn't actually do anything about it."

Grossi says she did not experiment while she was in the force or engage in any sexual conduct that would have violated the policy -- while she wasn't aware she was a lesbian at 19, she was well aware of "don't ask, don't tell." "Everybody realized when they came in that you couldn't do certain things and that's why they signed that paper. We abided by that." Given the environment at the Defense Language Institute, she says, dating among women was out of the question. And she believes her conduct is more important than her orientation.

The details of the DLI witch hunts are strangely juvenile. The epithets, circular questioning and schoolyard-like taunts evoke a pubescent battle between the sexes. "It's like a high school -- kind of sad, actually," Grossi explains. "The rumors go around and then they just spread and get bigger and bigger. That's how it happened."

First, a rumor surfaced that two women in a certain training flight group had been in a relationship that went sour -- one of the women had apparently given up her seat on a flight, allegedly because her former lover asked her to. The group as a whole became known as "dyke flight" by male colleagues. Grossi was a member of the flight.

Senior Airman David Vigil and Master Sgt. Rodney Hamlet, both superiors, called Grossi into Hamlet's office. They asked her if she knew about a rumor about "the family," and asked if she knew about the "propensity" of student leaders on her flight. When she said she didn't understand, Hamlet replied that there are "certain kinds of people" who like the same kind of people. He asked her if she knew about her fellow airmen's "propensity to like the same kind of people." Then Vigil and Hamlet began to question her more directly, asking if she was involved in "nasty rumors that were flying around the DLI." She said no.

The two enlisted personnel started talking about the rumors openly in a common area where students and officers gathered. Grossi thinks their behavior fed the fire, creating an atmosphere where adolescent teasing became pervasive. In her language class, someone asked about the Serbian word for "rainbow" (which happens to be the gay pride symbol) and another student replied, "Oh, Grossi would know."

Also during class, the report states, fellow student Airman Reyes "would hold his fingers to his nose as if he was smelling them" so Grossi could see, then say to her, "Let me smell your hand so I can see if you did the same thing I did last night." The sexual comments and gestures happened in front of the whole class. Even Grossi's civilian instructor got in on the action. He once asked her if she had "fun ... with her girlfriend. Oh, I mean boyfriend."

Another female airman in Grossi's class reported that a male student called her and another airman "pussy suckers," and asked them, "Why would you want that, when you can have this," pointing to himself.

"They felt free to basically torment us," Grossi says.

Where did the rumors come from? Grossi says she isn't sure, and still doesn't exactly know why she was singled out for questioning. She believes it happened because, weeks before, she had turned down Airman Reyes' request for a date. She says he responded, "Oh, you must be a lesbian."

"Don't ask, don't tell" isn't supposed to work this way. The way the policy is written, superior officers are supposed to wait for a commander to authorize an inquiry before they start an investigation, and investigations based on rumors are supposed to be forbidden.

For her part, Grossi sees no problems with the policy as it was conceived. "The policy in theory is good. The problem is, it's not being abided by. It was our commanders and our senior enlisted personnel who were breaking the rules, and it set an example for everybody below them ... I don't know how the policy would actually work if it was followed."

In its March report, the Pentagon acknowledged a widespread misunderstanding of the policy among active forces. In a survey of more than 70,000 active service members, 57 percent said they had not had training on the gay policy; 46 percent said the policy was ineffective or only slightly effective at preventing anti-gay harassment. Eighty percent said they had heard offensive speech or jokes about homosexuals in the past year.

But 78 percent of those surveyed also said they would feel free to report harassment against gays. And the Pentagon has released the figure that approximately 80 percent of discharges under "don't ask, don't tell" are "self-reported" -- cases in which enlisted people "told." To some observers, this shows that the policy is working just fine.

Commentary about gays in the military tends to focus on gay men, not lesbians. Observers of military culture often say that lesbians integrate better into the military than straight women do, because sex between them and the male majority isn't an issue; and better than gay men do, because straight men often feel threatened by gay men but see lesbians as a turn-on.

"I've heard a lot of military guys say that they feel that lesbians work out a lot better because the sex issue isn't there," Gutmann says.

Widely held is the belief that while gay men are promiscuous and flamboyant, lesbians pretty much keep to themselves and do their jobs without bringing sexuality into the mix. But if that's true, why are women so disproportionately affected by "don't ask, don't tell"?

"I don't have numbers on this," Gutmann says, "but my general impression is that there are more lesbians than gay men in the military." In other words, if there are more lesbians discharged from the forces, it may be because there are more of them serving to begin with.

Grossi has another possible answer. "Military men tend to have this ego," she said, reflecting on the man who called her a lesbian when she turned down his date request. She sees his reaction as endemic of the macho culture that, understandably, is still pervasive in the military. Sexuality, it seems, is an issue no matter what.

Like many of the women who faced similar investigations, Grossi tried dating men in her class to diminish the rumors. "It didn't help at all. It almost made things worse." The taunting didn't stop, she said. "They just came out with, 'Oh, you're trying to see if you like the other side too.'" Besides, Grossi says, "it's not fun living as something you're not."

"The military is in the middle of a shift," says Catherine Manegold, author of "In Glory's Shadow: Shannon Faulkner, the Citadel and a Changing America." In doing research for her New York Times coverage of the Faulkner case, she observed the awkwardly shifting attitudes toward women serving in the most elite segments of the armed forces. "The mentality is us and them by definition, because they have to think that way to train," she explains -- and there is no more stark us-vs.-them scenario than that of gays vs. straights. While women are making significant advances, "the issue of homosexuality is still the wild card in this."

Thus it comes as no surprise to Manegold that "don't ask, don't tell" might be abused by people who are uneasy with women's presence. "There certainly is tremendous residual discomfort over the notion of women in the military. If there's still resentment and difficulty around that, the easiest way to essentially drum somebody out is to use that card. So in that way, it makes a lot of sense to me that more women would be targeted than men."

But Gutmann insists the 80 percent self-reported figure can't be ignored. "There is the belief out there that people have been using this as a way to get out."

In fact, the gay policy contains a provision that it should not be used in that way -- a provision that also gives the military the authority to investigate someone beyond his or her own word about his or her sexuality. Investigations often include questioning a service member's friends, parents, spouses and former spouses about sexual matters and personal confidences. Which raises the question: When is "asking" admissible, and when is it against the code? When can private matters remain private?

Take, for instance, the case of the "lesbian CD," which shows that supposed evidence of misconduct seems absurd at times. At one military base an officer was investigated after a rumor surfaced that she had received a chapel blessing with her alleged girlfriend. After the inquiry officer had questioned supposed witnesses to no avail, he decided to search through her things. The only evidence he found was a compact disc "labeled or marked as having music containing homosexual or lesbian content." It turned out to be a benefit CD to raise money for breast cancer research, but no matter -- the inquiry officer then searched the woman's computer files and Internet logs based on the discovery. In the end, he turned up nothing.

Grossi also left the service after sending a letter to her commanding officer, disclosing her sexual orientation. But she says she did so only after more than two years of harassment and struggle. She managed to graduate with honors from the DLI and move on to the Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas. But the rumors followed her there.

"I was all set to conform to the rules, and do everything I was supposed to until my term was up," she said. "But they made it impossible. I lost the urge to conform."

So she wrote the letter disclosing that she is gay. "It basically said that I didn't think it was right, the things that they were doing to people, torturing people for wanting to serve their country."

The Air Force launched an internal investigation into the conduct of superior officers at the DLI, and later offered Grossi a verbal apology. "It was proven that their conduct was wrong, and that everything that I said happened actually happened. They told me they realized there is a problem at DLI, and they were sorry about what happened to me."

Given the way women fare under the current gay policy, can it be reformed to include the many changes needed in order for women, not just lesbians, to be treated fairly? Is "don't ask, don't tell" not working because it makes it too easy for women to leave or because it makes it too hard to stay?

"I think that it is a wonderful policy," Gutmann says. If people were allowed to be "open" about their sexuality, she fears it would invite disruptive behavior that could threaten unit cohesion. "What exactly does 'openly' mean? The whole problem is making a point of your sexuality." A policy of discretion, she says, is exactly the right way to go. "I think that should be the military's attitude: We don't care what you do, just don't drag it into the public sphere."

But Manegold sees it differently. She says the policy undermines the core values that make the military an elite institution: honesty and personal integrity. "Once you inject a policy that very specifically states that there's a kind of graying of the truth -- in an institution that's supposed to be about truth and honor -- then I think you're really subverting the institution itself. It essentially opens the door to lying."

Manegold believes the policy is already failing and will eventually be scrapped. "It was supposed to alleviate tension; instead it seems in some cases to have exacerbated it.

"I think there needs to be an absolute acceptance or rejection -- I personally would vote for acceptance -- but I think those lines need to stay clear for all parties concerned."

Until that happens, a lot of women might decide to stay out -- or get out -- of the service.

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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