“I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of our armed forces.”
– John Shalikashvili
In a January piece for The New York Times editorial page, John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997 and former supporter of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, came out in favor of allowing openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military. This would be an enormously beneficial and necessary shift in policy that America should not hesitate to take.
Established in 1993, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy allows gay people to serve in the military only if they keep their sexuality a secret. Military personnel cannot ask another service member about his or her sexuality, and anyone who is openly gay is discharged. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a step up from “No gays, period,” but it’s still far from perfect. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was implemented to prevent tension and bullying while preserving troop unity and effectiveness. But really, it has just proved backward, detrimental and discriminatory.
Perhaps it has taken America longer to recognize gay rights because we perceive gay culture as a new phenomenon, even though anyone slightly familiar with any piece of ancient Greek literature knows there is absolutely nothing new about homosexuality. Think of it this way: If you substituted “women” or “black people” for “gay people” in the above quotation, most people would find Shalikashvili’s statement absolutely abhorrent. Maybe this is because most people either lived through or learned about the civil rights movement for minorities and women, and we are more accustomed to those types of equality.
However you justify it, discrimination by any name is still discrimination. We cringe at the idea of racial, religious or gender-based prejudice, but how are those any different than prejudice based on sexuality? Why is America, a country that prides itself on personal freedoms and diversity, still clinging to needless discriminatory policy?
According to a recent CBS poll, 76 percent of Americans surveyed believe the war in Iraq is going badly. Despite these dismal ratings, more troops are still being sent to Iraq, and, quite frankly, the military should take anyone who is willing to fight. Whether they are openly gay, straight or bisexual, the military is in no position to turn away people who want and are able to serve.
Sadly, more than 11,000 service members have been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Seven hundred and twenty six of those were dismissed in 2005. To add to the absurdity, about 800 of the discharged service members had critically important abilities, including 55 who were proficient in Arabic. When trying to bring order to a chaotic battle, it is counterproductive to dismiss people with rare and critical skills because of intolerant ideology at home.
About 24 countries currently allow openly gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military, including Israel and Britain. Despite its original concerns, Britain has found that most of its fears about openly homosexual soldiers have not come to fruition. Now the Royal Navy has even allowed gay sailors to participate in civil partnership ceremonies onboard ships.
The land of the free obviously has some catching up to do when it comes to personal freedoms. A recent Zogby poll of more than 500 service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan found that 75 percent were comfortable working with gay people. It appears our troops are ready to move toward a more open policy, but the fears of an overly conservative administration are holding things back.
If we truly want to support our troops, we should support not just the sacrifices they make and the work they do, but the people they are as well.
Rachel Wagner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.