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Violence and Gays in the Militaryby


Michael BronskiIt

was, of course, to be expected. On July 17 an Army review concluded that no

officers would be held responsible for the death of P.F.C..Barry Winchell who

was murdered on July 5, 1999 by a fellow soldier at Fort Campbell, on the

Tennessee-Kentucky border. Even more shocking was that the review also stated

that there is no general "climate” of homophobia at the base and, although

it found troublesome anti-gay attitudes among some members of D Company, 2nd

Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, no unusual

degree of homophobia was discovered.

The

review is striking for several reasons. The first is that it was even performed

or issued at all. Violence of all kinds – including homophobic violence – is

endemic to military bases. Unless it reaches deadly proportions it is usually

never news. Even when deaths are reported, the circumstances are often

whitewashed. Were it not for the work of gay and lesbian activists, the murder

of Barry Winchell would have been a prime example of this.

Winchell,

a 6’2" 21 year old private first class, was thought well of by his

superiors and had even been nominated for Soldier of the Month at the time of

his death. Since his arrival at the base, although he had never come out – the

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy prohibited that, even he had wanted to – he had

become the target of anti-gay taunts by other soldiers. These taunts increased,

and escalated into physical attacks once it became known that he was dating a

transgendered performer in the Nashville gay bar scene. Things had intensified

to a boiling point that during a heavy drinking July 4 weekend celebration when

Winchell’s roommate Justin Fisher, 27, and Calvin Glover, 19, provoked several

fights with him. In an afternoon encounter Winchell punched out Glover, who

proclaimed "a faggot cannot kick my fucking ass." The next night,

Glover – allegedly at the urging of Fisher, went into the bedroom where

Winchell was sleeping and bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat so

violently that blood was splashed fifteen feet down the hallway.

In

the first official reports Winchell’s death was the product of drunkenness and

petty antagonisms. It was only after gay and lesbian activists – in

particular, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (http://www.sldn.org/index.html)

– investigated and protested that the anti-gay subtext of the crime became

news. The mainstream media, in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shepard, began

extended coverage, and once faced with this publicity the military proceeded

forward with a more public trial. Private Calvin Glover was convicted by a

military court and sentenced to life in prison and S.P.C. Justin R. Fisher, was

sentenced, in a plea bargain, to 12 ½ years in prison for his role in the

murder that included washing the blood off the baseball bat in an attempt to

cover up his and Glover’s involvement.

But

Winchell’s death did not happen in a vacuum and the Servicemembers Legal Defense

Network, activists, and Winchell’s family pushed for further investigation and

expected the army to admit both the presence and toleration of wide-spread

anti-gay sentiment at Fort Campbell, and by extension, other bases. It was an

optimistic expectation. The review – led by the Army’s inspector general, Lt.

Gen. Michael Ackerman – found neither extensive anti-gay sentiments, but held

that neither Maj. Gen. Robert T. Clark, who was commander of the 101st Airborne

at the time, or any other officer was guilty of negligence, even through they

were well aware of the taunts and attacks aimed at Winchell. Clark, in fact, was

quickly moved fro the post after the murder and has since been assigned to an

important post in the Pentagon.

Ironically,

the Army’s review of the Winchell killing was released almost simultaneously

with the findings of a Defense Department advisory group that Defense Secretary

William Cohen formed last spring to draft an "action plan” for each of the

military services to address the problem of harassment of gays. The panel

recommend that service members of all ranks receive "more tailored forms of

training" on the proper implementation of the Clinton administration’s

"don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which allows homosexuals to serve as long

as they don’t reveal their sexual orientation. Cohen appointed the panel after

the Defense Department inspector general reported in March that harassment based

on perceived homosexuality is widespread in the military. According to a study

of last March, 71,570 soldiers surveyed, 80 percent claimed to have heard

anti-gay sentiments being vocalized by both enlisted men and officers.

Clinton’s

policy – which was condemned by activists as flawed from its inception – was

a compromise position, enacted only after his original plan to prohibit all

discrimination against homosexuals in the military was shot down by Congress and

Chiefs of Staff. While "don’t ask, don’t tell" clearly does not deal

forthrightly with the discrimination that lesbians and gay men face in the

military, it has also highlighted – and some activists claim, even increased

– a dangerous reality of military homophobia. Since lesbians and gay men

cannot come out – "tell" – under the threat of being discharged,

it becomes nearly impossible for them to report anti-gay harassment or actions.

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network the situation is so tense

on many bases that even women and men who are not gay are discouraged from

reporting anti-gay threats to other for fear that they themselves will be

targeted as homosexuals. Under these conditions it is not surprising that

commanding officers – through negligence or their own homophobia – ignore or

tacitly condone anti-gay taunts and attacks. This is clearly the message of the

Army’s review of Winchell’s murder.

For

many progressives, with anti-militarist politics, the problem of gays in the

military is complicated and they are hesitant to argue for the "right"

of anyone to be in the military. As one banner in a recent gay pride rally

proclaimed – "The Problem isn’t Gay Soldiers. The Problem is Dead

Soldiers." But when viewed through the lens of anti-gay violence – and

the denial of the Army that such violence hardly even exists – the position,

and safety, of homosexuals in the armed forces can be viewed in a different

light.

 

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