Last May, the conservative think tank, Family Research Council, released a report concluding that a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would further increase the already abnormally high rate of male-on-male sexual assaults in the military. The organization, which often feeds talking points to right-wing politicians and pastors, said they believe this will happen because openly gay men in the military will be incapable of resisting their comrades.
This typical stereotyping of gay men as perversely promiscuous offended those who support LGBT rights. However, I was primarily offended as a man who once during an overnight school trip in high school woke up to an arm draped across my body.
My experience mirrors some of the anecdotes the FRC offers as evidence of the evils of gay men in the military. In the report’s dry, emotionless tone, it would sound something like this: Victim awoke in motel bed to the assailant’s noticeably small penis wedged inside the victim’s buttocks, gyrating in and out. I don’t believe my clothes were removed, nor that my assailant ejaculated, but that didn’t matter. The memory of him breathing down my neck and relaxing his arm on my side still feels more terrifying than anything sexual that happened. He’d violated me, and I’d been too unconscious to stop him.
What felt worst of all, though, was the immediate sense of shame. Two other guys were asleep in a separate bed next to us. I remember lying there for some time, paralyzed, afraid one would awaken and find out, before finally pushing my assailant off me, tiptoeing to the bathroom, locking the door and having a mental breakdown.
At the time, I genuinely believed I’d somehow “asked for it.” Although I wouldn’t admit it for years, my assailant was someone I’d had a crush on. He was also someone I’d thought of as a friend, someone I could trust enough to share a bed with. Because I had feelings for him, I found myself guilty of his crime and couldn’t envision any other verdict.
To cope, I convinced myself while sitting on the toilet in the motel bathroom that everything that had transpired was just a nightmare and, after pulling myself together, forced myself back into the same bed as before, the bed my assailant still lay in. I made sure to lie down on my back, and soon both of us drifted into sleep, pretending nothing had happened.
I could write pages about how harmful this experience was — how it worsened my already poor sense of self-worth, how it damaged my ability to trust, how it affected my sexual development and hindered me from acknowledging my own homosexual tendencies — but I don’t want to. Discussing such things would de-emphasize the more significant point that in October of my freshman year at Michigan, Facebook informed me that my assailant had obtained a girlfriend.
I’d lost touch with him long before then, but didn’t defriend him until a year ago — an irrational fear of someone noticing and asking me why I’d removed him prevented me from doing so sooner. However, I have no reason to believe he has ever come out as gay or bisexual, and the work of some psychologists and sociologists suggests he possibly never will.
Back in the 1950’s, psychologist Alfred Kinsey concluded from a series of interviews that nearly half of American men had at some point “reacted” to other men in a sexual way. But even today in our more tolerant society, the number of men who self-identify as gay or bisexual hovers between two and five percent.
This is because sexuality is not as cut-and-dried as we like to believe. Sexuality seems best viewed as a continuum, with a sizeable number of people falling between straight and truly bisexual—that is, consciously possessing sexual interest for both genders. Sometimes people who identify as straight still experience some same-sex attraction and, sometimes people have exceptionally poor judgment and choose to act on sexual feelings in a hurtful way.
Unfortunately, such a nuanced view of sexuality seems lost on many conservatives engaging in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” debate. Some conservative organizations have supported the repeal, like the Log Cabin Republicans, whose case against the policy won in a federal court last Thursday. Others haven’t gotten the message, and the FRC report shows how backward conservatives’ logic can be when it comes to issues like sexual assault and sexuality.
Their logic amounts to this: there are more male-on-male sexual assaults in the military than in the general population while there shouldn’t be an unusually high number of homosexuals in the military. Therefore, increasing the number of homosexuals would increase the number of same-gender sexual assaults.
This rationale fails to consider the fluidity of sexuality among straight men surrounded by other men living in conditions non-conducive to an intimate relationship of any kind, let alone one with a woman when the military’s gender ratio remains unbalanced. This isn’t to say that soldiers are secretly gay or that sexual frustration leads to sexual assault, but rather that homoerotic tensions can exist between straight men and even the most honorable of soldiers can still make dishonorable decisions.
If the FRC genuinely cared about male-on-male sexual assaults, they wouldn’t single out gay men as its cause. Hurtful actions and decisions make a person an assailant, not sexuality. Inevitably, soldiers choose to assault their comrades because they believe they can get away with it, and when the victims are men, I believe assailants realize the crime isn’t likely to get reported. Interestingly enough, the FRC believes this too and included it in their report: “…homosexual assault cases are probably less likely to be reported, given the stigma that a heterosexual soldier might feel about having been homosexually assaulted.”
Unlike the FRC, I believe “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” creates the stigma. Because the military sees homosexual relations as wrong, male soldiers who become victims are more likely to feel shame or blame themselves. This seems especially the case for victims who may have previously felt homoerotic feelings. They fear being perceived as less of a man or gay, when really, they should only fear not telling and nobody asking.
Personally, I wish I hadn’t been afraid. I would have let someone know about the assault and possibly even reported it, making the whole thing into a much less drawn out ordeal. Instead, despite attending a public high school in oh-so-liberal California, I told no one until my sophomore year of college, two years after it happened. In the military, where a stated policy enforces a fear of gayness, the pressure for victims to remain silent increases, and in turn, increases their pain.
In bringing up the topic of male-on-male sexual assault, the FRC has chosen to politicize something they seem to know little about. However, doing so has provided an opportunity to change the discourse. If we must stigmatize a group, we should object to sexual predators, not gay men, and realize the two groups are entirely different.
Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is just one step in the right direction. It will allow the military to confront the homoerotic tensions that arise in any organization — high schools, churches and yes, even fraternities. Hopefully the repeal will allow all American citizens, straight or otherwise, to better confront the complexities of their own sexualities, encouraging a safe environment in which nobody has to feel ashamed.