Round 2: Should gays serve?

A Salon panel debates the ban on gays in the military. Second of two parts.


Daryl Lindsey
June 13, 2000 10:01PM (UTC)

In Round 1 of Salon's debate on gays in the military, we asked one of the chief architects of the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy why gays should be excluded from the service. The bottom line, said Northwestern University professor and military sociologist Charles Moskos, is that it's an issue of privacy and modesty. Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military and forcing their heterosexual counterparts to room with them would be the equivalent of mandating that men and women share the same barracks and bathing facilities. "[U]nless you believe movies like "Starship Troopers" or "G.I. Jane," Moskos offered, humorously, and that just isn't going to happen.

"I think the gender stuff is hard enough to deal with, and to replicate that with sexual orientation just makes life too much trouble," Moskos said, recalling recent high-profile sexual harassment cases, like that of the Army's recently retired top-ranking female, Gen. Claudia Kennedy. In other words, a sexually charged barracks would undermine staff morale and combat readiness.

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But to advocates of a repeal on the ban, the issue at hand is one of basic fairness. It's one of the last battles in the march for civil rights that began with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s, and the privacy argument made by Moskos is no different than the excuses people tried to make when President Truman ordered the racial integration of the military back in the 1940s.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network legal director Stacey Sobel responded to Moskos' argument with this: "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. "

Today, our panel debates the prevalence of anti-gay harassment in the ranks, a subject that has given the policy its biggest challenge to date; examines the successful integration of gays and lesbians into the armed forces in other NATO countries; and tackles the greatest challenge of all for permitting gays to legally serve in the armed forces: How to overcome skepticism of the top brass.

Here's the final round of debate:

A Pentagon report earlier this year indicated a significant rise in anti-gay harassment in the armed. The report indicated that 37 percent of military respondents had witnessed or experienced harassment relating to their sexual orientation. A Servicemembers Legal Defense Network report indicated a doubling of anti-gay harassment since 1998. Has "don't ask, don't tell" fueled an anti-gay environment?

Moskos: No. Those figures seem to me like tabulated fiction. There has always been anti-gay harassment in the military. When the reports said that 20 percent of soldiers had never heard an anti-gay remark, I blanched. I said, these guys are either lying or, worse, they're completely out of it. The number of people who have heard an anti-gay remark in the Army must be 99.9 percent.

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If someone is picking on you for being "gay, gay, gay," I think that person, under "don't ask, don't tell," is supposed to be punished. But a little teasing or a few remarks about one's sexual orientation? Let's get off our high horses and get a little realistic.

Stacey Sobel, legal director for the Servicemember Legal Defense Network: "Don't ask, don't tell," doesn't work. More people are being asked, pursued and harassed than ever before. Three people are fired every day because of their sexual orientation. Military leaders need to send clear, strong messages that anti-gay activities and violations of [the policy] will not be tolerated. Military leaders did not make these types of statements until this year, and they came only after the tragic death of Winchell. While we do not have figures for anti-gay harassment before [the policy] went into effect, SLDN has received an increased number of anti-gay harassment reports from service members every year since the policy has been in place. The current situation at Fort Campbell, Ky., is only one example of how an anti-gay climate has been allowed to flourish and the horrific results of it. Private Barry Winchell was harassed on a daily basis for more than four months prior to his murder last summer by a fellow soldier based on a perception that he was gay. Incredibly, even after Winchell's murder, harassment continued unabated at Fort Campbell. Some soldiers have even mocked Winchell's murder as a way to intimidate and threaten others, making references to "faggots" and baseball bats.

Moskos: Interestingly enough, the Ft. Campbell murder, which brought "don't ask, don't tell" under its most severe criticism, was a murky case. Winchell's roommate was, according to local media reports, of mixed sexual identity himself. He was the one who egged on the actual murderer, gave him the bat and got the homophobe who actually did the dirty deed drunk. I could see an anti-gay person say, "Uh huh," you can put gays in the military and you get murders like that going on because of rivalries and jealousies. Interestingly enough, the national media has not picked up on that case. You only heard the one side, never the other.

Lt. Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, retired Army nurse: In 1993 and once again in 1999 service members lost their lives because of hate crimes committed against them. That sort of misconduct has not been heard of against any other minority serving in the military. In each case the military had to be called to task before appropriate investigation and action took place. The idea of stomping on someone's face until he was unrecognized at his funeral by his mother (Alan Schindler) or being beaten to death with a baseball bat by a fellow soldier (Winchell) based on sexual orientation is a new way of acting out hatred. There have been numerous investigations of members of the military belonging to hate groups. These same members have acted out their hate and caused concern about behavior of service members with such affiliations. This same type of hate, and intolerance is commonly used against secretive homosexuals serving in the military.

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I expect that every service member at some point witnessed direct anti-gay harassment either directed at them or others. Every major movie made prior to when it was not politically correct that dealt with boot camp or military training had derogatory remarks such as "faggot" or "wussy." It was part of the macho image that made someone a tough service member. The venom and tolerated explicit homophobia has increased.

Most NATO nations already allow gays and lesbians to serve in uniform. Those countries have integrated gays successfully. What makes the military context in the United States different?

Moskos: Why should Europe be the model and not America? We have a much more effective force than most of the European armies. The big exception, and probably the best European fighting force, are the British, who until recently had an absolute gay ban. A British general resigned [over the decision], but I never saw any American press coverage of it.

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The Dutch and the Scandinavians are generally considered at the forefront of gay rights. The Dutch even have an association of gay soldiers. But they don't have the most impressive fighting force, either. The Mediterranean countries are less so; there's still a de jure ban against gays in Greece and Turkey. Italy and France have a de facto ban. And Germany by federal civilian law can conscript homosexuals, but no homosexual can be put into a supervisory position in the military. They can be drafted, but they can never be promoted. That's astounding to me, and I don't know why the [European] court hasn't looked at that.

What makes the American context different is that we're one of the few countries in the world that has both a strong gay advocacy movement (including in the mainstream press) and at the same time a strong religious conservative element very powerful in its political culture. No other country in the West has that kind of religious right. We have a schizoid political culture -- liberal on one side and conservative on the other. Probably in real life, most Americans are somewhere in the middle.

Sobel: Professor Moskos did not address the fact that the country that is the most culturally similar to the United States is successfully including known gay, lesbian and bisexual members in its military. A new study of gays and lesbians in the Canadian military, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that Canada's 1992 decision to allow homosexuals to serve openly in its armed forces has had no negative consequences.

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The Triangle Institute for Security Studies reported last fall that 76 percent of senior military officers oppose open gays serving in the military. The support of such officers, it seems, is essential to repealing the ban. What's your strategy for changing attitudes about gays and lesbians among the ranks of officers?

Cammermeyer: It's well known that the majority of people who have served and are serving in the military worked side-by-side with gays and lesbians. There was no undermining of the mission. It is hypocritical to say that open gays should not serve. What does openly gay mean? Is this the drag queen flaunting about in uniform? Is this the swishy gay guy seen on "M*A*S*H?" Or is this the unfounded stereotype that straight people have because they "have never met a gay person?" The problem is twofold. One is the enormous stress that living a lie has on the lives, careers and emotional well-being of gay service members. The second problem is that superiors have to maintain the party line or fear being blackballed for promotion or lucrative positions so they would not challenge existing policy.

In the military, changing peoples' minds occurs with training. Since there are no out gays and lesbians in the active military, it's time to call in the veterans. There are homosexual veterans in every branch of service at every level of rank and in every venue. People in the military live in a cloistered world where the incest of self-training is inappropriate on this issue.


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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