Gay-Baiting Under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
In the wake of Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy's high-profile sexual harassment case against another Army general (who himself had just been put in charge of investigating sexual harassment!), the mainstream media have given a substantial amount of coverage to the appalling rates of sexual harassment of women in the armed forces. But you would be hard pressed to find in these news reports any mention of one of the principal spurs to this harassment: the policy on gays in the military, popularly known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
"You can't separate this policy from sexual harassment," says Michelle Benecke, a former captain of US Army defense artillery -- and a Harvard-trained lawyer -- who is the co-founder and co-director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). "A lot of the perception that women in the services are gay stems from the fact that they're not sleeping with anyone in their unit," Benecke says. "The Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy pressures young women into sexual activity with their superiors by making them subject to the threat of discharge as gay."
The Defense Department's own discharge figures support Benecke's contention that women are being disproportionately targeted by the policy: Women accounted for 31 percent of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell discharges in 1999, even though they are only 14 percent of the uniformed services. The numbers are most striking in the Army, where women are only 15 percent of the force but 35 percent of the gay discharges; in the Air Force, where they are 18 percent, compared with 37 percent of discharges; and in the Marines, where women are 6 percent of the Corps but account for 21 percent of those discharged. Since lesbian-baiting is the military man's best defense against charges of sexual harassment, these numbers help explain why many women in the military are afraid to report such conduct, let alone tell their superiors about antigay harassment.
Nicole B. was 21 when she joined the Navy in 1995 and became a second-class petty officer in the weather-forecasting service. At a Navy forecasting school in Biloxi, Mississippi, her Marine instructor in oceanography "was constantly making antigay jokes. Rumors had circulated that I was gay, and this instructor would make cracks about 'dikes in the water' and turn to me saying, 'Don't get too excited about the word.'" Things got worse when Nicole was sent to a small base in Texas after she told her chief about the antigay harassment of a male sailor friend in her unit, who was constantly being "baited as a 'fag,' 'a woman,' a 'guy who wears makeup.'" Then someone "wrote a message on my car that said, 'You suck dick and eat pussy,'" Nicole says. "I was terrified and fearful for my life. It just got worse, and I cried every day." After Nicole finally reported the harassment to her chief, she says, "He told me, 'I just want to reach over and slap your face.'" Since three superior officers had harassed Nicole, she "didn't feel there was anybody among my chiefs who'd back me up if I was assaulted. I loved the Navy, but it's so difficult when you have to hide, make up a boyfriend, censor your social conversation. Then I got into a relationship, and that's when it became clear to me that I wasn't going to be able to deal with this, that I had to give it up. That was very hard." Nicole got in touch with SLDN, which helped her write a coming-out letter to her commanding officer. She was discharged last year, but says, "I still miss the Navy -- I'm encouraging my little nephew to become a Navy pilot."
Petty Officer Nicole B.'s experiences typify the ways in which even gays who try to be discreet have been increasingly subject to harassment and expulsion under the current policy. Not only has the policy -- its correct name is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Harass, Don't Pursue" -- failed to diminish discharges of gay servicemembers; it has actually increased them, from 617 in 1994 to 1,034 in 1999, at a cost of more than $161 million (based on General Accounting Office figures) in training replacements for those discharged. And the policy has spurred soaring rates of verbal abuse and physical violence, even murder.
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This disastrous policy was born out of Bill Clinton's refusal to honor his 1992 campaign pledge to let gays serve openly in uniform. In large part because of his own reputation as a draft dodger, Clinton knuckled under to pressure from the generals and admirals and their allies in Congress, thus betraying the principle of civilian control of the military and sending a signal to the Pentagon crowd that he could be rolled (as ever-increasing military-procurement budgets in his two terms have shown).
Moreover, Clinton's capitulation forced the gay movement to fight on a battleground not of its own choosing. The 1993 gay-run Campaign for Military Service not only strained the movement's limited resources; the losing effort was also a PR disaster for gay politics that undercut the chance to pass the critically important Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) while Democrats still controlled the Congress.
Many left-wing gays were uncomfortable at seeing precious energies squandered in combat for the right to serve in a military they disdained and distrusted. But once the issue was joined, the movement had no choice but to confront the tidal wave of slurs against same-sexers deployed by four-star homophobes like Colin Powell and bigoted politicians like Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn. And all the more so because military homophobia is also a class issue: The overwhelming majority of its victims are young recruits who joined up to get an education or career, lured by the bright promises of flashy ad campaigns and aggressive high school recruiting, often before they admit to themselves they're gay.
Even the Department of Defense itself has now been forced to admit that harassment of uniformed gays remains widespread. In March the DoD Inspector General released a survey of 71,570 active-duty servicemembers revealing that 80 percent of those who filled out questionnaires reported hearing "offensive" antigay remarks. Nearly 10 percent said they had witnessed physical assault. Significant numbers also reported "offensive or hostile gestures," "threats or intimidation," graffiti, vandalism, "limiting or denying training and/or career opportunities," and "disciplinary actions or punishment" not of the bigots but of their victims ("for example, being punished for something when others were not"). Most telling, of those who said their "cited situation" was witnessed by someone senior to either the person being harassed or the harasser, 73 percent said "the senior person did nothing to immediately stop the harassment."
If the Clinton Administration had really been serious about protecting gays in the military, the Pentagon would have conducted such a survey long ago. That it happened at all was due to two things: increased pressure from SLDN, which has documented rising harassment and discrimination in a series of meticulous annual reports for the past six years; and the particularly grisly antigay murder of a soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on July 5, 1999.
Pvt. Barry Winchell was only 21 when, after enduring four months of verbal and physical assault, he was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by a fellow soldier. Winchell, who had been asleep in his cot, was left with his skull shattered "like an eggshell," according to an Army investigator, his eyes black and swollen shut, his brains oozing from his head. Winchell had confided to two friends that he was afraid to report the escalating daily harassment that led to his murder, because he would risk being kicked out of the Army.
It was five months after Private Winchell's murder when Defense Secretary William Cohen finally ordered the IG survey of antigay harassment throughout the armed services. But even now, the Army is refusing to release its IG's report on the antigay climate of terror that reigned at Fort Campbell under its commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Clark. "We provided a lot of evidence of antigay harassment there and how it was tolerated by superior officers," says SLDN's Benecke.
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To take just two examples: Fort Campbell Pvt. Javier Torres gave a sworn statement to SLDN that, just months after Private Winchell was murdered, his unit's staff sergeant led them on a run singing in cadence, "Faggot, faggot, down the street/Shot him, shot him, till he retreats." Another Fort Campbell sergeant, assigned to brief a unit on the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, repeatedly called the training session the "fag briefing" and referred to gay soldiers as "fags."
"We asked the IG conducting the Fort Campbell investigation, 'How can servicemembers contact you?' and he told us to our faces that he believed that he was obliged to turn in as gay any servicemember who said he was a victim of antigay harassment," says Benecke. Although the IG report on Fort Campbell was due to be released on May 1, the Army has postponed giving the report to the Secretary of the Army until July 1 -- conveniently after General Clark's June 9 advancement to a prestigious Pentagon post as Vice Director (J3) of Plans and Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As Benecke points out, "This is the man who allowed the harassment at Fort Campbell to exist, and to continue even after Private Winchell's murder. As of February 20, twenty soldiers at Fort Campbell have come out because of their fear. Clark deserves to be dismissed." Retaining Clark in uniform -- and even rewarding him -- sends a clear signal that servicemembers can continue to harass with impunity.
That's certainly the impression that Clinton Administration policy has left with many military commanders and their subordinates. Not until March 1997 did the DoD get around to issuing "Guidelines for Investigating Threats Against Service Members Based on Alleged Homosexuality," by Under Secretary of Defense Edwin Dorn, designed to implement the 1993 Don't Harass, Don't Pursue policy. But SLDN forced the Pentagon to admit in April 1998 that it had never distributed the guidelines to the field. And it was not until after Private Winchell's murder fifteen months later that the Dorn report was finally distributed. In the IG harassment survey this past March, 57 percent of respondents said they had received no training on the policy; of the 54 percent who claimed they understood it, only 26 percent were able to answer the three most basic questions about it.
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"The new policy is worse than the old, much worse," says Professor Janet Halley of Harvard Law School, who last year published Don't: A Reader's Guide to the Military's Anti-Gay Policy (Duke). "Under the old policy, you could be discharged if it was found out you had a 'homosexual orientation.' The new policy says you can be discharged if you have manifested a 'propensity' to engage in homosexual acts. 'Propensity' is judged by 'conduct,' but that can mean anything from having a Melissa Etheridge poster on your wall to wearing short hair and a thick, black watchband to refusing to have sex with a man," she says, citing real examples from discharge cases. Moreover, Halley says, to escape expulsion "you have to prove that you have no propensity, so the only defense is an identity defense, a status defense -- you have to prove you're straight." And the judgment about "propensity" is an entirely subjective one, which means treatment of gay military personnel varies greatly from command to command.
That was the experience of Petty Officer First Class Larry Glover, who was discharged February 25 from the Navy after fifteen years for being gay: "I went from two commands that were not too bad to one that was pure hell," he says. Like so many others, Glover says he "didn't figure out that I was gay until I'd been in the Navy for three years -- I had fought it up until then." For Glover, joining one of the uniformed branches was an escape route from both a stunted economic situation and from "a small town in East Tennessee in the middle of the Bible Belt -- for me, it was a way of getting out to see the world." Glover has earned ten medals -- "I rattle when I walk," he chuckles. He even has a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for having risked his life to save a $77 million plane from going over the side of an aircraft carrier in high seas.
In his first two commands, Glover was eventually accepted by the sailors he worked with -- "Once I told them, 'Yes, I'm gay, so what?' the issue went away." But on his last shipboard posting, the antigay atmosphere was particularly virulent. Glover found himself having to stand up for younger sailors who were being harassed as gay: "It was my job as a person in a leadership position. I put myself on the line every day. I witnessed spray-painting of the word 'fag,' destruction of private property or of uniforms in lockers -- things like filling the lock with glue so sailors couldn't get to their uniforms, which caused them to be late, which got them punished. I witnessed chief petty officers using terms like 'the little fag,' 'the little butt-bandit,' 'ball breath.' One kid had a complete nervous breakdown -- I took him off the ship crying." Glover's attempts to protect younger sailors led to his "being threatened" with negative performance evaluations. By this time he was in a relationship, and the effects of harassment and the pressure to be closeted "limits your compatibility with your partner; the job just wasn't worth what I was putting in. A friend high up in the military that I'd met at a gay bar told me about SLDN and gave me their number. They helped me write my coming-out letter to my commander. The day I heard they were going to process my discharge papers, I put a rainbow sticker on my locker." Glover, who had to give up $850,000 in pay and retirement benefits when he chose to stop hiding, now says, "I'm distraught with the Defense Department and government in general," adding, "We've got to fix this policy -- we just have to."
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Most of America's major NATO allies now allow gays to serve openly in the military, including France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada. Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Israel do as well. Britain was forced last fall by the European Court of Human Rights to end its military ban on gays and has now embraced them, even inviting gay soldiers who had been discharged to apply for reinstatement. Dr. David Segal, who directs the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization -- which studies comparative military institutions -- says that "there is no evidence from any country we've looked at that lifting the ban on gays impacts negatively on either unit cohesion or performance." He adds, "There's no question that the direction of social change will eventually deal with sexual orientation as irrelevant in terms of the military."
The Pentagon's brass hats know this is true. Aaron Belkin, who directs the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, points out that "gay discharges always go down in wartime. During the Korean and Vietnam wars there were about half as many such discharges as in peacetime. In World War II the discharge rate was substantially lower than in the postwar period. In the Persian Gulf War, the military had a 'stop-loss' order that suspended gay expulsions. What the Pentagon is saying is, when unit cohesion is most important and our survival is at stake, we'll keep them in. There is no intellectually honest case to be made that gays undermine cohesion in the military." Quite the reverse: The current US policy saps unit cohesion by subjecting gay servicemembers to career-ending blackmail.
The hypocrisy of the Pentagon's attitude is underscored by one of the Army's first African-American generals, Maj. Gen. Vance Coleman, who retired in 1989: "Gays have been serving honorably in the military ever since it existed. It's never a problem until the leadership makes it one." Coleman compares the arguments against openly serving gays to those deployed against lifting the ban on racial segregation in the armed forces: "It's the same thing. Close your eyes, sit in a room and listen to the generals' discussions -- you hear the same reasons." The right of gay people to serve openly is, Coleman says, "a legitimate civil rights and human rights question. It shouldn't even be an issue."
However, given the current conservative composition of our judiciary, it is unlikely that court challenges to the military's antigay policy will prevail in the foreseeable future. The Supreme Court has declined to hear five cases challenging the constitutionality of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and all four of the eleven federal circuit courts in which the policy has so far been challenged have upheld it. That kicks the ball back into the political arena.
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In the most recent Gallup poll on the question, in January, 41 percent of Americans said gays should be allowed to serve openly; 38 percent -- most of whom wrongly believe the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy is a tolerant one -- said gays should be able to serve under the current policy; while only 17 percent think gays should not be able to serve under any circumstances.
The issue flared into the news briefly during the presidential primary campaigns. Bill Bradley, who in 1993 had voted as a senator for outright repeal of the military ban before Clinton signed Don't Ask, Don't Tell into law, reiterated his position in his campaign last September and said he'd expect the military to follow his policy. Until then, Al Gore had said only that he'd implement Don't Ask, Don't Tell with "more compassion."
But competing with Bradley for the gay vote, in December Gore finally came out against Don't Ask, Don't Tell and said he would lift the ban entirely and make this a litmus test for his appointees to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (after the Republicans jumped on him for that last statement, Gore backpedaled somewhat, saying there would be no "political opinion" test for his military appointees). Even President Clinton got around in December to admitting that the current policy was "out of whack" (an unfortunate locution that led to a spate of raunchy jokes by late-night TV comedians). On the GOP side, George Bush declared in the primary debates that "I'm a Don't Ask, Don't Tell man," while John McCain likewise supported the current policy because it's "working."
But, of course, it isn't, as the rising discharge rates and the DoD's own harassment statistics show. Moreover, the Don't Ask and Don't Pursue elements of the current policy are continually violated by commanders, investigating officers and even legal personnel. SLDN, in its March annual report, "Conduct Unbecoming," documented 194 Don't Ask violations from February 1999 to February 2000, a 20 percent increase from the preceding year and the sixth consecutive increase since the policy began. In the same period the SLDN report also detailed 470 Don't Pursue violations, a 34 percent increase. This year, there was an antigay witch hunt at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, which ensnared fourteen enlisted personnel, mostly female. And at the beginning of June, SLDN forced the Navy to admit that for the past two years it has been sending undercover agents into five Washington, DC, gay bars and nightclubs to seek out patrons who are in the military. The Navy claims it's only going after illegal drug use, but SLDN's Benecke calls this "a ruse -- our information shows they're only targeting gay establishments."
Congressional supporters of lifting entirely the ban on open gays in the military are deeply pessimistic about any positive legislative changes. "This Congress is not going to overhaul this policy," declares Representative Marty Meehan, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking member of its subcommittee on personnel. Meehan says that "there's no way even to have hearings on harassment now -- we'd go backward, not forward." On the Senate side, another longtime opponent of the ban, Massachusetts's John Kerry, likewise paints a bleak picture, at least "until we [the Democrats] get a majority." About all he and his like-minded colleagues can do at this point, he says, is "turn up the heat a notch" on the Pentagon and the Administration. Kerry says that "what's missing is the investigative component" to identify those who engage in or tolerate harassment, and he wants Clinton to issue an executive order for an investigation that would root out violations of the Don't Ask, Don't Harass and Don't Pursue sections of the policy and hold military leadership accountable. In May he and Senator Max Cleland, a paraplegic veteran from Georgia, sent a tart letter to Defense Secretary Cohen pointing up the failure to implement antiharassment training in the armed forces in a meaningful way.
Even Representative Barney Frank, one of the Administration's most visible defenders, says he is "deeply disappointed with the way Bill Cohen has handled the harassment issue." On June 7 Frank and thirty colleagues (including minority leader Dick Gephardt and two GOPers -- Connie Morella and Mark Foley) sent an even stronger letter to Cohen calling the Pentagon's failure to curb harassment "disgraceful"; denouncing the promotion of General Clark, the Fort Campbell commander; attacking the Navy and Air Force for trying to recoup training costs from servicemembers discharged as gay, even though this violates the DoD's own policy; and asking for a White House meeting. To date, neither the Kerry/Cleland nor the Frank et al. letters have received anything more than a "we'll get back to you" acknowledgment.
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Coming to grips with one's homosexuality when already in uniform is a terrifying experience. The Pentagon has to be forced to take seriously its obligation to provide comprehensive antiharassment training (the training materials are thoroughly confused); to provide a safe way in which victims can report harassment without fear of losing their careers; and to punish not only harassers but those commanders who tolerate harassment (not a single one has been disciplined). Until then, SLDN is the gay servicemembers' only protection.
It's amazing how much this small legal-aid group has accomplished already. Founded in 1993 on a shoestring, SLDN -- which has already handled 2,300 cases -- is today struggling along on a $1.4 million budget and desperately seeking additional funds for more legal staff to handle the soaring number of harassment complaints. Its "Survival Guide" is the only document that tells military gays how to cope with the current policy and what their rights are (the DoD provides no such material). Jeff Cleghorn, a retired major in US Army military intelligence who got a law degree after he left the service in 1996, is one of SLDN's legal-aid intake staff; he says that the organization's clients "are mostly young people concerned about, if not their physical well-being, then their emotional well-being." SLDN counsels active targets of investigation on "what they can do to minimize the risk of those investigations being either initiated or expanded," Cleghorn says. "If there's harassment or physical threats, we contact base commanders and legal officers and remind them of the investigative limits in the current policy." The group has just under 200 open cases at any one time -- but the number is growing. And there's no question that SLDN has saved lives. "Just the other day I had a call from a kid at a naval base in Florida who'd been assaulted physically by several sailors," says Cleghorn; "he was in tears and suicidal. I called the Metropolitan Community Church [a gay denomination] in the city he was in to arrange counseling in a safe space, and contacted the chaplain at his base. He survived. We go with what's there -- even if it's just someone who'll give 'em a big hug and listen to their problems."
Bill Clinton, Bill Cohen, Al Gore and their lame-duck Administration still have six months to do something to protect kids like that sailor in Florida. But will they act?
For information or to make a contribution to SLDN: Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, PO Box 65301, Washington, DC 20035-5301 (or www.sldn.org). For free, confidential counseling, call (202) 328-3244.
Doug Ireland writes frequently on politics for The Nation, where this article originally appeared.