Earlier this week, the Pentagon released a study on the effects of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). The study found that allowing gay and lesbian service members to serve openly in the military would have minimal effect on the overall readiness, effectiveness and morale of the military. In fact, 70% of service members stated that repealing DADT would have a positive, mixed or no effect on military units.
We conclude that, while a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will likely, in the short term, bring about some limited and isolated disruption to unit cohesion and retention, we do not believe this disruption will be widespread or long-lasting, and can be adequately addressed by the recommendations we offer below. Longer term, with a continued and sustained commitment to core values of leadership, professionalism, and respect for all, we are convinced that the U.S. military can adjust and accommodate this change, just as it has others in history.
Such findings should not be surprising. The United States is actually fairly behind on its policies on gay and lesbian service members; Australia, Denmark, France, Israel, South Africa and the United Kingdom are among the countries that do allow openly gay people to serve. The U.S. military is not the first to realize the benefits of allowing service members to be open about their sexual identities, and Ham and Johnson do not sound remotely surprised by the findings in the report.
What is surprising, however, is how little life might change for gay and lesbian service members if DADT is lifted.
In terms of specific rights for gay and lesbian service members, not much will change. The report states that the Department of Defense should not “revise their regulations to specifically add same-sex committed relationships to the definition of ‘dependent,’ ‘family members,’ or other similar terms in those regulations, for purposes of extending benefits eligibility.” Similarly, the report does not recommend “that sexual orientation be placed alongside race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, as a class eligible for various diversity programs, tracking initiatives, and complaint resolution processes under the Military Equal Opportunity Program,” because “doing so could produce a sense, rightly or wrongly, that gay men and lesbians are being elevated to a special status as a “protected class” and will receive special treatment.”
Both of these stances perplex me. The rationale for not allowing same-sex partners to count as spouses is that it would be unfair to unmarried heterosexual service members. How can that be true, however, if in most states, marriage equality is still illegal? Heterosexual couples have a choice whether or not to marry. Same-sex couples, most of the time, do not have this choice. Preventing gay and lesbian service members from claiming their partners as dependents penalizes them for their lack of civil rights.
As for not placing sexual orientation under the Military Equal Opportunity Program, I have to wonder why such a program exists if not all minorities are eligible. Surely, the program has benefited individuals who have been discriminated against based on race, gender and religion, and it could do the same for service members who are discriminated against due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation. What makes someone’s gay or lesbian identity less worthy of protected status than someone else’s identity as a woman or a person of color? All oppressed minorities should benefit from opportunities like the Military Equal Opportunity Program — otherwise, there is no reason for such a program to exist.
What’s even more concerning, though, are the ways in which gay and lesbian service members will still need to monitor their own behavior so as not to make heterosexuals in their unit feel threatened. Certain behaviors are, of course, inappropriate in the military; unwanted sexual advances, harassment and violence are never acceptable, no matter who the perpetrator might be. But that’s not necessarily what Ham and Johnson are referring to when they write about threatening behavior. Instead, a common concern among current service members is that allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly will “lead to widespread and overt displays of effeminacy among men.”
Even gay service members express this as a concern! One anonymous gay service member was quoted in the report as saying:
If it is repealed, everyone will look around their spaces to see if anyone speaks up. They’ll hear crickets for a while. A few flamboyant guys and tough girls will join to rock the boat and make a scene. Their actions and bad choices will probably get them kicked out. After a little time has gone by, then a few of us will speak up. And instead of a deluge of panic and violence…there’ll be ripple on the water’s surface that dissipates quicker than you can watch.
The implication, of course, is that flamboyant, effeminate men are unfit for military service. It may be true that conventionally masculine behavior is the norm in the military, and there may be some good reasons for that. After all, when one is in combat, one is required to be strong, tough, emotionless. The military and conventional masculinity are very wrapped up with each other. That being said, there is no reason why an effeminate man would automatically be unfit to serve. Effeminate men have the same capacity for strength and dedication to one’s country as masculine men. Such men should be embraced by the military, not seen as threatening. Furthermore, where is the line drawn? What behavior will be seen as “threatening” and worthy of disciplinary action? Would it be as simple as a gay or lesbian service member kissing his or her partner goodbye before heading off to war? s.e. smith recently wrote about this slippery slope of gender and sexuality policing at this ain’t livin’:
For some people, gay men holding hands in public is ‘too gay’ and giving your partner a peck on the cheek on your way to work is ‘in your face gay’ when these activities would pass without remark if the people involved were (or appeared to be) heterosexual. Don’t even get me started on more extreme activities like kissing on the lips or having your arm around a partner’s waist. It’s a constant reminder that to be anything other than heterosexual is to be lesser, and that your sexuality doesn’t really belong in public spaces, should not be embraced socially, should be hidden, because it would be terrible and horrible if people were confronted with your gayness, your queerness, your lesbianness.
s.e.’s take on the policing of what is “too gay” or “too effeminate” is the exact problem that gay and lesbian service members might face if DADT is repealed. Sexual orientation and gender presentation have nothing to do with one’s ability to defend one’s country. But because the discussion is being exclusively framed in terms of the ways in which gay and lesbian individuals will need to accommodate their heterosexual peers (rather than also discussing the ways in which heterosexual service members should make gay and lesbian peers feel welcome and accepted as part of the team), there is a strong possibility that the ways in which service members perform gender identity or express sexual orientation will be used as excuses to harass people on the basis of their sexualities. Such scrutinizing of behavior will certainly do more harm to a unit’s morale than a soldier’s decision not to mask his high-pitched voice or a marine’s decision to display a photograph of her girlfriend next to her bed.
DADT is an outdated, discriminatory policy, and I applaud the Pentagon for publishing a report that recognizes the need to repeal it. But repealing DADT will just be the beginning for gay and lesbian service members. There will be numerous other battles to fight before gay and lesbian people are treated as complete equals in the military. It is up to the Department of Defense and military leaders to ensure that equality does come and that gay and lesbian service members are not fighting for justice alone.