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The Problem of Gay Soldiers…


Over the past week I have received, and continue to receive, dozens of e-mails relating to gay politics and lives and the Bush’s administration’s response to the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11. The e-mails fall into two groups. The first is a celebration of the “news” – which turns out to be inaccurate – that the government has lifted its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy thus allowing openly homosexual lesbians and gay men to serve in the armed forces. This alleged change in policy was, obviously, in response to the gearing up of Bush’s war against terrorism. The second group of e-mail were from young gay men – including former students – who were worried that they would now be drafted.

First, the facts about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” According to Steve Ralls of the Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN) (www.sldn.org.) – an independent legal aid and watchdog organization that assists men and women in the military who face witch hunts, death threats, and discharge – the ban on out homosexuals serving in the military has not been lifted. What has happened is this: President Bush issued Executive Order 13223 on September 14, 2001 authorizing, but not ordering, the Secretary of Defense to consider issuing a stop-loss order in each Service. Such an order would allow a far more selective use of discharges at the discretion of commanding officers. The Service Secretaries will make that decision in the next two to four weeks. A stop-loss order may or may not include suspension of gay discharges. SLDN’s Executive Director C. Dixon Osburn, of Service Members Legal Defense Network has stated that “service members should continue to operate with the understanding that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ remains in effect.

Since Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was instituted in 1993 gay men and lesbians who wanted to leave military service without a dishonorable discharge, could do so by declaring their sexual orientation. Indeed, one of the military’s complaints with the policy was that it provided queer service people with a method of breaking their contract with the military – which many of them were doing. Obviously if it is in the military’s interests to stop this out-flow of bodies they will do so. What would a stop-loss order do? Eliminate the possibility of honorable discharge for the queer and maintain a dishonorable discharge? Directly or indirectly encourage violence against out servicemen and women? The fundamental issue for the military – what to do with queer soldiers – doesn’t go away; nor does the national government demonstrate any likelihood of dealing any better with it.

In contrast, the situation should more clearly focus gay and lesbian groups on fundamentals. The frightening part of these celebratory e-mails was why, on the brink of what might potentially become a serious military conflict, would any gay and lesbian group be happy that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” be lifted? Certainly the young men who wrote to me worried about the draft – and who supported a non-military response to the attacks – were not eager to be drafted and fight in a conflict with which they morally and politically disagreed. Talking to them reminded me of how easily, and happily, I “checked the box” when I was called for the draft in 1970. While many of my heterosexual friends and political compatriots were contemplating fleeing to Canada or going underground, I had the relative luxury of simply being openly queer to avoid fighting a war I abhorred and to continue doing anti-war and political organizing work in the U.S.

But 1970 was a different time. It would have been inconceivable for gay liberation groups at that time – who understood that even their name, like Woman’s Liberation Front, was derived from the Viet Cong’s National Liberation Front and fight for freedom in Algeria – to have advocated for the right of American homosexuals to fight in Viet Nam. But throughout the 1970s and the 1980s the gay rights movement (as opposed to a “liberation” movement) became increasingly wedded to the idea that “gay rights” meant the “right” to be just like everyone else. As the gay rights movement became increasingly conservative the more progressive ideals of the gay liberation movement – broad concepts of social justice, anti-racism, anti-militarism – were left behind.

One of the indications of the rightward shift in the gay movement is how central the fight for gays in the military became for many mainstream gay advocacy groups. While these groups could have focused (and to a small degree did focus) on issues such as the serious violence often aimed at homosexuals in the armed forces, most of their energy was at repelling that ban on gay people serving. And overwhelming this was done by endlessly promoting the idea that lesbians and gay men could be as militarily patriotic as any one else. Throughout the 1990s the movement made iconic heros (and legal cases) of such people as Margarethe Cammermeyer, Jose Zuniga, Joseph Steffan, Mary Anne Humphries, and James Holobaugh –all of whom had been kicked out of the military for being queer – all of whom in their autobiographies and their personal appearances embraced a profoundly conservative, even reactionary politic. Cammermeyer’s book, *Serving in Silence,* is replete with appalling racism about the Vietnamese and a staunch defense of the U.S. war there. Zuniga and Holobaugh repeatedly attack queer progressive groups such as ACT UP an Queer Nation as being “fringe” and hurting the gay rights cause. Gay rights groups such as Lambda Legal Defense, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Human Rights Campaign promoted these gay service people as the true gay heros. In doing so, they wrapped themselves in a flag a uncritical and unthinking patriotism that brings us to a point where they are in no position to critique or criticize U.S. foreign or militarist policy today.

It would be both important and vital for gay and lesbian rights organizations to have a place in what a cohesive progressive response to the imminent changes in the foreign and military responses of the U.S. in the next weeks. This will be impossible, however, unless they cast off the cloak of knee-jerk patriotism they have assumed for more than two decades. At this point in time gay and lesbian legal groups should be planning to supply draft counselors, not celebrating the alleged suspension of Don‘t Ask, Don’t Tell. They should be producing posters saying “Boys Say Yes to Boys Who Say No.” They should be thinking of every conceivable means to avoid body bags not promoting urging young gay bodies to go to war. As a poster at the 1997 Gay Rights March on Washington proclaimed. “The Problem isn’t Gay Soldiers. The Problem is Dead Soldiers.”

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