When President Clinton enacted the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, he intended it as a liberalization of the military’s previous outright ban on homosexuals, closeted or not. In the years since the policy was implemented, however, its flaws have become apparent. Even though it allows homosexuals to serve in the military, it forces them to live double lives. Instead of making the military more accepting of homosexuality, it has codified a bias against it. Homosexuality is fine in the military – as long as nobody has to deal with it, hear about it or even acknowledge its existence. Apparently, there’s nothing wrong with a gay soldier – so as long he (or she) pretends to be straight.
But instead of fighting the policy itself, lawyers are arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the 1996 Solomon Amendment – a powerful few paragraphs that allow the federal government to deny federal funds to any educational institution that the Secretary of Defense deems to be obstructing recruitment efforts. Thirty-four of the nation’s top law schools have decided that because “don’t ask, don’t tell” is anti-gay, the military is a discriminatory employer that should not receive a place at campus job fairs. The implicit suggestion here is, of course, that the military can continue its policy – just so long as it keeps it well away from the Ivory Tower.
Why, if the policy is antigay, is public attention not focused on the policy itself instead of a peripheral issue? If there’s a perception that the military is engaging in discrimination, why are supposedly progressive activists fighting – on shaky legal ground – to keep discrimination off college campuses instead of fighting the discrimination itself?
The fact is that “don’t ask, don’t tell” marginalizes gay and lesbian soldiers as somehow inferior. It actively discourages them from military service and forces them to hide their identities. It forces them to choose between serving their country and living truthful lives. It embraces the archaic belief that uncloseted homosexuality is bad, and that the military cannot operate under the influence of gayness. It passes value judgment on a lifestyle variable that has little to do with personal choice and even less to do with military competency. Far from liberalizing the military’s stance toward homosexuality, it formalizes the right of the federal government (the military) to fire employees (soldiers) solely on the basis of sexual orientation.
Even the argument that openly gay service members will make heterosexual service members uncomfortable presupposes the worst of both groups. It assumes that all gay soldiers will be uncontrollably drawn to their heterosexual comrades, that they will have no choice but to ogle their fellow soldiers in the shower, that they will force their gayness on innocent heterosexuals.
It also assumes that straight service members will be unable to tolerate gay service members, that heterosexual soldiers will simply be unable to shoot straight under the influence of homosexuality, that heterosexuals will be unable to get over the psychological barrier of lying (in nightclothes!) just beds away from an opportunistic homosexual.
Yet openly gay soldiers serve without difficulty in other NATO militaries, and American soldiers serve without difficulty with soldiers from other NATO countries. Something tells me that if the American military started accepting openly gay soldiers, it’d survive. Something tells me it’d be better off. Firing 10,000 competent gay soldiers – at a time when ongoing recruitment efforts are spectacularly ineffective – doesn’t come without its costs.
Of course, allowing openly gay people to serve in the military would be controversial. There’s not a doubt in my mind that James Dobson would be upset. But radical right-wing family activists are always upset.
It was once controversial to have integrated black-white military units. It was once controversial to allow women and men to live together in college dorms. It was once controversial to even allow women in the military. Not so miraculously, society got over it. Women serve in the military, all military units are racially integrated and – believe it or not – students manage to live in co-ed dorms without much difficulty.
It’s time to move past “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s a problematic solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. It codifies irrational fears of homosexuality. It hurts the military – it hurts the nation. Instead of fighting to keep it off college campuses, lawyers and activists should be fighting to keep it off the books.
Momin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.