Lesbian soldier seeks asylum after death threats

Private Bethany Smith became a deserter after colleagues said they would kill her in her sleep

By Kate Harding

Published December 7, 2009 9:08PM (EST)

A couple of months after learning that she was about to be deployed to Afghanistan, Private Bethany Smith received an anoymous death threat. Smith, a 21-year-old lesbian who enlisted in the Army in 2006, was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., the same base where Barry Winchell was murdered in 1999. Like Winchell, Smith was continuously harassed about her sexuality, "receiving hundreds of anonymous "gay-bashing" notes," according to Women's eNews. She was also "grabbed, shaken and thrown on the ground by a male soldier daily." The taunts of "dyke" had started as soon as she arrived, but "the abuse worsened exponentially after a soldier spotted her holding hands with another woman at a local shopping mall." So when she got a note in 2007 that described how some of her fellow soldiers planned to steal keys to her room and beat her to death during the night, Smith fled Fort Campbell to seek asylum in Canada. "It was at that point," she says, "that I knew I was more afraid of the people who were supposed to be on my side than people we were supposed to be fighting overseas."

Although Smith's first appeal for protected status was rejected, Federal Court Justice Yves de Montigny recently ruled that Canada's refugee board should reconsider her case. He noted Winchell's murder, the fact that gay sex violates the military code, and "evidence that [Smith] was afraid that her superiors may have been involved in the harassment and threats targeted at her" as reasons to give her another hearing, after the original findings stated that somehow a written death threat on top of regular beatings and hundreds of lesser threats did not constitute "a risk to her life or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment upon return to the United States." Smith's lawyer, Jamie Liew, emphasizes that Smith is not looking to avoid going to Afghanistan, but to avoid going there with people who mean her harm. "The idea that she would be deployed with people who were giving her death threats is a problem. If people in your unit are not there to have your back, you would be killed in a war and you wouldn't even know if it was because of friendly fire, of enemy fire or because of someone deliberately firing at you . . . Her situation is unique in that way."

It may be, in that she's the first to seek asylum because of persecution from fellow soldiers, but what drove Smith to Canada is far from unique. The Human Rights Campaign's website says in its FAQ about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, "Although gay, lesbian and bisexual service members have been held to the 'Don't Tell' portion of the policy, reports show that the 'Don't Ask, Don't Pursue, Don't Harass' parts of the policy are often ignored. A 2000 Defense Department inspector general survey showed that 80 percent of service members had heard offensive speech, derogatory names, jokes or remarks about gays in the previous year, and that 85 percent believed such comments were tolerated. Thirty-seven percent reported that they had witnessed or experienced direct, targeted forms of harassment, including verbal and physical assaults and property damage. Overwhelmingly, service members did not report the harassment. When asked why, many cited fear of retaliation." And speaking of DADT, in October, the University of California, Santa Barbara's Palm Center released data that showed, in the words of Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory, "women are disproportionately punished under the military's fingers-in-your-ears policy toward homosexuals." Meanwhile, violence against female soldiers in the military is rampant, and questions often surround the deaths of gay soldiers, like Ciara Durkin, whose death was ruled a suicide by the Army, even though shortly before she died, she told her family another soldier had pulled a gun on her and asked them to investigate if anything happened to her.

Even if Smith had no evidence of specific threats to her life, it's reasonable to conclude that her being a lesbian would pose serious risks to her safety in such a hostile environment. We can hope Canada's refugee board recognizes that and allows her to stay, but until the U.S. does something to address a military climate that supports harassment and violence against female and gay soldiers, many more will remain in danger.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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