To hear Rob Hicks tell it, you can't swing a cat around the US Army's Defense Language Institute (DLI) without hitting a gay soldier.
"On my hall of 14, I knew nine men that were gay," says the 28-year-old Korean language student, who was discharged from the Army in October after a late-night barracks inspection found him in his boyfriend's room. "In my class of 27, seven of them were gay -- and those were just people I knew in my company who I had close contact with."
Maybe "gaydar" is adding a few percentage points to Hicks's evaluation of the gay-to-straight ratio at the Presidio, but if so, he's not alone in his assessment. Collin Smith (not his real name), a first-year Russian language student at the Monterey, California military graduate school, concurs.
"I've only met maybe four or five hundred people here, and of that, maybe 120 were gay or bi," Smith figures. "Surprisingly enough, it's very prevalent in the military."
At DLI, where some 3,000 men and women from various branches of the service, are studying 19 foreign languages in intensive training programs, the Army discharged nine students last month because of their homosexuality. That's in spite of what former student Alastair Gamble describes as a very gay-friendly culture there. Gamble, 24, was more than halfway through the school's Arabic program when he and Hicks were discovered in his barracks last April. He received his discharge in the summer and now lives with Hicks in Beltsville, Maryland.
"There are a lot of gay soldiers and airmen and seamen at DLI," Gamble says. "I don't know if they're represented more than in any other given unit. But certainly there are more who are out. You're dealing with people who are typically older, more mature, more intelligent, so you get higher degrees of tolerance, and within that, people who are more open about their sexuality."
Hicks agrees that DLI is exceptionally tolerant. "When I was pulled from class for this, the person who had to give me the message was a Marine sergeant who'd been in for six or seven years. He knew a long time before I was kicked out, and he never even blinked. And he was a Marine. We actually saw him at Disneyland when we went to see Alastair's aunt."
None of this comes as a surprise to Chris Lewis, who is gay and served in the Navy from 1982 to 1986. He says that's how it's always been. He recalls the situation aboard his ship, the Mobile, which he says was nicknamed "The HoMobile." "I had 331 people on the ship I was on," he says. "Of the 331, a good 40 were gay and everybody knew it. There were some flaming queens. The whole admin ops was gay. You'd go in there and it was like -- pardon me, but a bunch of women. Cologne, chewing gum, they'd be laughing and talking, the whole thing."
"Everybody" might have known those sailors were gay, just as "everybody" might have known that Hicks and Gamble were a couple even before they were caught. But proof of homosexual activity is still enough to get a person kicked out of the U.S. military. The military's policy toward homosexuals has enjoyed an uncomfortable moment in the spotlight since the story broke last month about the nine discharged students, six of whom were studying Arabic. Two of the nine, Hicks and Gamble, were caught by their superiors. The other seven, all acting independently, voluntarily declared their homosexuality to their commanding officers and got their walking papers soon afterward.
In a time when soldiers fluent in Arabic are considered vital to national security, the Army's decision to expel Arabic students because they are gay has been attacked as absurd. The story has also called attention to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which allows the military to look the other way unless presented with irrefutable evidence of a soldier's homosexuality. (In Gamble's and Hicks's case, the evidence wasn't the fact that they were in the same room at 3:30 a.m., but rather that the inspectors found photographs of them together in affectionate poses.)
While it seemed, before last month, that "don't ask, don't tell" was a relatively permissive stance, it now seems like an antiquated piece of moral legislation. Especially since, as these present and former soldiers maintain, most fellow soldiers and officers don't really care if their cohorts are gay. "They didn't care then and they don't care now," Lewis says bluntly. Hicks and Gamble agree, which is why they have a hard time believing that the other seven servicemen and women were being harassed at DLI.
According to Steve Ralls of the Servicemen's Legal Defense Network, those men and women found the environment at DLI to be hostile toward gays, so they went to their commanding officers and declared their homosexuality, knowing it would result in their discharges.
"Like a lot of service members who go into the service believing that 'don't ask, don't tell' is as simple as 'don't ask, don't tell,' they then realized it required them to be dishonest 24 hours a day," Ralls says. "These service members realized that if they were going to put their lives on the line for their nation, then they should have the same rights and respect as their heterosexual colleagues."
Gamble snorts at this. He thinks they were using the policy to get a world-class education and then skip out on their duty to the armed forces, where the pay is lower and the work more dangerous than in the private sector. "When they're handing you a year and a half of unbelievable training, people say at the end of this training, 'Wow, I have this fantastic education and fantastic ability to speak the language and oh, by the way, I'm gay now,'" says Gamble. "You'll find people often come out at the end of training -- conveniently."
Hicks says one of the discharged men, who was in his Korean classes, angered his commanding officer by making his declaration. "His platoon sergeant was my platoon sergeant," Hicks says. "She was upset, very upset, that he pulled that. But there was nothing she could do. She had to report it."
The other discharged service members could not be reached for comment. The Defense Language Institute deferred all calls from the media to the Department of Defense. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Cassella gave the official position toward homosexuals as this: "First of all, a service member's sexuality is a personal and private matter. We conduct extensive training to eliminate harassment of all types. We expect all our service members to be treated with dignity and respect." Cassella would not speak to individual discharges, but he did say that "commanders have a good deal of latitude. But we do expect them to apply the policy in a manner that is fair and consistent."
For the fiscal year ending in September 2001, a total of 1,227 service members were discharged from the US military on the grounds that they were homosexuals. The argument against allowing gays in the military has traditionally been that the presence of a gay man or lesbian would upset "unit cohesion" -- the ability of soldiers to bond and think and react as one. But even conservative service members don't view their gay counterparts as different, Hicks says.
He tells the story of a fundamentalist Christian classmate who frequently disagreed with him in class. "We were not on very good terms," says Hicks. "But he came up to me while all this was happening and he said, 'I don't agree with what you're doing, but I think it's really rotten what [the Army is] doing. If I had a choice between you and 75 percent of the rest of the company to be in a foxhole with, I would pick you.'" "You remember what Barry Goldwater said," says Lewis, paraphrasing the Arizona conservative. "He said, 'We said they had to shoot straight, not be straight.'"
Traci Rae Hukill is associate editor of the Monterey County Coast Weekly.