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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

A look back at my work with the LGBTQ community. I first became active in the gay rights movement in 1980 when I launched my LGBTQ jo...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Stare?

While recently watching the most excellent documentary Ask Not on MPT, which presented a terrific overview of the origin of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy and its impact, a clip by a soldier made me think back to when I served. During one of the interviews following President Clinton's attempt to ban the discrimination of gays and lesbians in the Armed Forces, the young soldier said, and I'm paraphrasing: "In the military we live in close quarters with no privacy. I would feel real uncomfortable if a homosexual was staring because he was attracted to me."

His rejoinder brought back memories to my days of service. It was while I was in the Army many moons ago that I experienced my first gay sexual encounter, which took place off the post and with another gay soldier. Following that, I knew I had to remain in the closet, and any further trysts would have to again occur off the post, off-duty and discreet beyond comprehension.

But I also remember quite clearly how I lusted after some other soldiers, who were straight, with whom I shared barracks, the workplace, and after-duty recreational venues. I didn't act on these feelings for fear of being beaten up in a "blanket party," snickered at, turned in during witch hunts, arrested, or ultimately discharged from the Army. Nonetheless, the thoughts remained and the fantasies lingered.

When I heard the soldier's comments from 1993 on the TV program and recalled my own personal experiences, I was thinking, hmmm, does he have a point? Let's be totally honest here. No one enjoys being "checked out" or stared at by someone he or she is not attracted to. Undoubtedly, most of us have experienced that. We have done it, and we have been the target. At a minimum it feels awkward or perhaps repulsive at the other end of the spectrum. So I think we can relate, even if we disagree with his generalization.

But this is the overriding argument expressed by opponents of the repeal of DADT, and it's a weak one. They maintain, with total certainty, that a unit's morale, cohesion and readiness would be adversely affected because of the close living arrangements that include openly gay colleagues ready to prey on the straight troops. In their minds, the policy change would lead to "recruiting," unwanted fondling, displaying rainbow flags, sex in the next bunk, etc., etc. etc.

That's what the opposition will continue to spew, and it's bogus for several reasons.

While some gays and lesbians in the military may "check out" colleagues, with few exceptions they smartly do not take any further steps. And it is doubtful that such restraint would change with the repeal of DADT. Therefore, the fear of staring is overblown and exaggerated.

For the record, straight soldiers frequently ogle their opposite sex colleagues. And it's perplexing that the unseemly number of sexual assaults and rapes committed by straight service members hardly surface during the DADT debate, even in the context of discussing unit cohesion and morale.

It's also important to note that of the tens of thousands of discharges from the service that occurred prior to DADT, rarely were they a result of sexual conduct. They stemmed mostly from fellow soldiers or sailors ratting on them or they were asked a question during a security clearance.

Moreover, the military has specific rules governing sexual conduct—gay or straight—so any violation would be dealt with under the auspices of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The worry that openly gay and lesbian service members would turn the barracks into a bathhouse is absurd by its naiveté and homophobic stereotyping.

There are an estimated 66,000 gay men and lesbians in the Armed Forces. No evidence exists that supports the notion that the inclusion of gays in the military would, in fact, negatively impact morale. This was supported by the findings of a 1993 study by the RAND Corporation, and an update is expected in the near future.

Many troops in the new modern military (post-1993), who are decidedly more accepting of gays and lesbians than in previous generations, have come forth saying they are aware of gays or lesbians in their units and it has no effect on them. Most will tell you that when they are in a combat situation, the last thing they are worried about is being hit on or stared at by a gay colleague. And a gay soldier will say the same thing: "We are trying to defeat the enemy and survive, and that is where our focus is and should be."

Still, opponents rant about how gays in the military would be disruptive to combat readiness. To meet recruitment goals, however, the military had no problem admitting an influx of unfit enlistees while at the same time, discharging qualified gay and lesbians—over 13,500 since DADT was implemented—many of whom with key linguistic skills that are paramount to our national security.

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, "Conduct waivers have been given for recruits with records of bomb threats, sex crimes and negligent or vehicular homicide. And yet, qualified, smart, law-abiding and fit youths who want to serve are being excluded merely because of their sexual orientation."

Other countries with tough military forces such as the U.K and Israel had no trouble assimilating gay folks into the ranks. The U.S. military overcame fears as blacks and women were integrated into the Armed Forces.

The retiring General Stanley McChrystal said it's all about competence. "If you're competent, it doesn't matter who you are...If a guy saves my ass, he sure as hell can look at it."

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