Should gays serve?

A Salon panel debates the ban on homosexuals in the military.

By Daryl Lindsey

Published June 9, 2000 7:06PM (EDT)

As with the abortion debate, there are few gray areas in the argument over whether to permit gays to serve in the military -- most either believe they should or they shouldn't. It's a clear-cut issue, black or white.

Those who fall on the side of supporting the integration of gays into the armed forces (or the acknowledgement and acceptance of those who already are serving) see it as a basic civil-rights issue. The Pentagon had to be dragged kicking and screaming before it allowed minorities or women to become soldiers, and the same will probably be necessary before it includes gays, too. Gays even have their own patron saint in Alexander the Great.

On the other side, you have those who believe that having uncloseted gays in the ranks would create a charged locker-room atmosphere -- with anxiety and sexual tension -- thus undermining troop morale and combat effectiveness. With myriad sexual harassment cases -- like the recent revelation that the Army's highest-ranking female, Gen. Claudia Kennedy, was the subject of unwanted advances by a male general -- between men and women, they might argue, why complicate matters further by throwing gays into the mix?

As part of our series on the lives of gays and lesbians in the military following the implementation of "don't ask, don't tell" -- the controversial law enacted by Congress after President Clinton attempted to repeal the gay ban in 1993 -- Salon News convened a panel of experts to debate the policy, seven years, two murders and thousands of discharges later.

Our panel included professor Charles Moskos, a prominent military sociologist at Northwestern University who was an architect of the original policy; retired Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, who successfully battled her discharge from the Army in the courts and wrote about it in her memoir "Serving in Silence," which was made into a television movie starring Glenn Close; and Stacey Sobel, legal director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington organization that provides services to gays and lesbians facing discharge.

Here's the first round of debate:

How has the military environment changed since "don't ask, don't tell" was implemented in '93?

Charles Moskos: It hasn't changed that much. The idea of "don't ask, don't tell," of course, was concerned less with the military than with getting Clinton off the hook on an issue that was sinking the early months of the administration. "Don't ask, don't tell" in some form has been the unwritten rule since World War II. The main difference is that the number of discharges for homosexuality has increased from 800 to 900 a year before "don't ask, don't tell" to approximately 1,300 currently. According to military records, 85 percent of those are "tells" [in other words, people who voluntarily disclose their sexual orientation] rather than seeking people out. What's interesting about "telling" is that it's the quickest way to get out of the military service with an honorable discharge. If one says one is gay, you are out of the military in a matter of days.

There's probably been some abuse of the system, but on the whole, it's what Winston Churchill once said about democracy: It's the worst system possible except for any other. There is more wiggle room for a gay person now than there was previously, but it is by no means an ideal situation for gays in the military.

Stacey Sobel: Since "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue, don't harass" went into place, SLDN has assisted more than 2,300 service members who have been affected by the policy. Gay discharges have also risen significantly, with 73 percent more people receiving gay discharges in 1999 than in 1993. While Professor Moskos says that 85 percent of the people being discharged "told," he does not reveal why people are coming forward. Service members most often disclose their sexual orientation to their commands because they are being harassed or they are no longer able to lie daily to their co-workers, friends and family in order to avoid being investigated and thrown out of the military. Professor Moskos also says that "telling" is one of the quickest ways of getting out of the military. This statement is not true. It usually takes months for service members to be discharged from the military, including those who face daily harassment from other service members.

Grethe Cammermeyer: With President Clinton's promise of lifting the ban, gay and lesbian servicemembers expected to be freed from the burden of living a lie. "Don't ask, don't tell" has introduced a tremendous stress for them. They now are more alerted to the existing policy and also to fear of being discovered, of being exposed, of being labeled without cause. They now worry they may lose their career without any evidence of misconduct. Since the policy was enacted, there has effectively been no appropriate training to defuse the fear of gays and lesbians serving in the military. There has been a total lack of leadership in the implementation of the policy and recognition of bias, which persists.

Sexual harassment can't be reported for fear of becoming the target of a witchhunt. This certainly was corroborated as Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy reported the misconduct of a fellow general. Only days after the report was made public, Gen. Kennedy herself was being investigated for "unrelated" charges. These charges were ultimately dropped, but they certainly set the tone of retaliation as it exists in the military.

Colin Powell has argued that sexual orientation should not be compared to skin color. Gay activists and organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, however, have taken pains to draw a closer parallel between the gay rights movement and the broader civil rights movement that emerged during the '50s and '60s. In what ways would allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military differ from integrating ethnic minorities and women?

Moskos: The analogy doesn't hold up. White liberals usually like to raise that comparison. One can't be a closeted black. The closer analogy could be gender rather than race.

The real issue here is that you don't get the issue of sexual privacy raised with racial integration. People said, what about men and women now that we have gender integration? Well, we haven't in the military. If all blacks and whites at night had to go to their separate living quarters and separate toilets and showers, would we call that integrated? No. But that's what men and women have to do in the military. The president even said, by the way, we could have gay units. To do that for gays and straights would be impossible. Not only would there be physical problems, but also the problem of labeling units. What are you going to call these groups? The "Fighting Fags?" Come on, it can't be done.

A little hypocrisy is what makes the system work now. Straights will have to be a little more tolerant, gays will have to realize it's not a perfect world and that's the way it's going to be.

Cammermeyer: Colin Powell is wrong in the sense that discrimination is discrimination, regardless of the defining characteristics. Powell asserts that color is immutable and sexual orientation is not. There are many who would argue that point because no one would choose to be gay, to be hated, to fear for their life.

When the military was integrated and women allowed to have military careers, there was extensive sensitivity training for years. Every service member was required to attend this training. Leaders at every level enforced the integration policy. There was an effective chain of command where individuals who felt discrimination could turn. As we think things improve, they get worse. Women now comprise 14 percent of the military and still face sexual harassment.

Nothing would have to change in terms of policy to allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military. Training to demystify the fears surrounding homosexuality continues to be essential.

Sobel: The issue is not integrating gay, lesbian and bisexual people into the forces, but allowing known gay people to serve. Gay people have always served in the United States military, many of them with great distinction. However, people like Professor Moskos cite privacy issues as the reason why gay people should not be able to serve openly in the military.

When speaking about the privacy of soldiers, Gen. Omar Bradley, who opposed President Truman's proposal to racially integrate the forces in the 1940s said, "Experiments within the Army in the solution of social problems are fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline and morale." According to today's military leaders, our forces are better than ever. The same racially integrated forces that were predicted to crumble from a lack of unit cohesion have flourished instead.

Moskos: That's just asking for trouble. How do we do it with men and women? It doesn't work there. We're having all kinds of cases, including as the women say, too many false accusations. Let's just muddle through the way we are with "don't ask, don't tell." It's much easier. I think the gender stuff is hard enough to deal with and to replicate that with sexual orientation just makes life too much trouble.

Critics of integrating gays into the military say that doing so will create unnecessary sexual tension and make heterosexuals uncomfortable and undermine troop morale. But how does this differ from the integration of women in the military? The Department of Defense has had to deal with numerous harassment cases during the past decade.

Moskos: My own philosophical view is that I don't like the idea of forcing people to live together who are of different sexual orientations. If you ask the general public whether gays and straights should have the same civil rights, a large majority will say yes. If you rephrase the question and say, should straights be forced to share a bedroom with a gay person, probably a large majority would say no.

In freshmen dorms in our liberal university campuses, if a gay and a straight are assigned to the same room and one wants out, they will get you out. That's the only reason they will separate a freshman dorm situation. That's acknowledgement that there are some modesty issues. It's not just a matter of professional behavior. Then we could have men and women shower together, too, and say, as long as men don't misbehave, that's OK. Well, most women just won't go along with that, unless you believe movies like "Starship Troopers" or "G.I. Jane."

Interestingly enough, on the female case, in the data we have collected and the congressional commission on which I served, women who report false accusations of sexual harassment are as much of a problem as actual sexual harassment. You have 60 percent saying [false accusations are] as much of a problem as actual harassment.

Cammermeyer: The myth is that gay men can't control their sex drives and would molest or seduce straight men. But gay men seek social companionship from gay men, not heterosexual men. Most gay men would never come out to their comrades until there was a level of pre-existing trust.

The irony of the argument is that heterosexual men are frightened and act out against homosexual men. They are abusive and derogatory against lesbians and imply their need for a real man. The notion about privacy or someone assaulting them during sleep, looking at them as they take a shower is hypocritical in view of the fact that everyone has been running around nude to shower and dress. There has never been a reported case of a homosexual assaulting a heterosexual man. The concern among women seems much less and is never discussed as the debate takes place.

The integration of women in the military does create sexual tension at times. When personal relations interfere with job performance the mission can be undermined. That is the reason that relations between members of the same unit or subordinate/superior relationships are prohibited in the military. It is the reason officer/enlisted fraternization is prohibited.

Women and gays have both served effectively and with distinction in the military. The sexual tension is managed with appropriate leadership and enforcement of policies governing behavior.

Monday: Fight Club continues.

Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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