On Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and Supporting Our Troops

Originally published by the Organization for a Free Society on 12/28/2010.

On Wednesday, December 22, President Obama signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) into law. Let’s smile with our friends and family whose jobs and lives are directly affected, and then get back to work and into the streets.

It’s vital to understand this in light of women being allowed to serve and the desegregation of the military. Despite both of these things happening years ago, sexual assault against women by soldiers in their own ranks is frighteningly common, and recruitment centers and agents disproportionately target low-income youth, communities, and schools of color.

My point is that these two changes to the armed forces did not fundamentally challenge oppression or transform our society. In fact, they just meant that structural oppression in the military would take new forms. And we must expect the same from the repeal of DADT.

I’m not denying that this has immediate effects on some people’s sense of safety and security or that it’s a symbol of changing opinions on LGB folks (I hesitate to include the T or Q here)—some of these politicians and their constituents do see this as a legitimate act of inclusion and acceptance. But I have to question why involvement in a military fighting two immoral, unjustified wars and disproportionately killing and displacing countless innocent civilians becomes a benchmark of acceptance for the marginalized of our nation (gay folks with the fight against DADT, undocumented youth with the DREAM Act, etc.). Especially when faced with epidemics of military suicide, psychological illness, and veteran homelessness.

For me, being queer has come to mean finding the courage to love in the face of hate and violence, to, as Ms. Audre Lorde puts it, “dare to be powerful.” And I don’t just mean daring to love other men, to not let go of a partner’s hand on a dark street or honestly answer the all too frequent “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” Those things are important, but the type of radical queer love I’m talking about goes far beyond that. It means daring to love my body, myself, my life. It means forgiving and loving even those who have kept me silent and closeted and finding the will to teach and grow through pain, my own and others’. It means rejecting the death of the closet and forming a loving, healing queer community. Paulo Freire tells us that to liberate the world, we must love it:

Only by abolishing the situation of oppression is it possible to restore the love which that situation made impossible. If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue.

This is the radical kind of love I mean. Through all the pain and struggle, this is the lesson I find in the depths of my queerness.

So I’m left wondering what place bullets and tanks have in our struggle to love. How night-time raids, bombed funerals, miserable poverty, and starvation could possibly fit into queer liberation. I can’t imagine how love can be expressed through the barrels of guns. In what ways must we dare to be powerful? What does queer power look like? Not just queer people who’ve climbed the ladders of power, lobbied our politicians, and been voted into office, but a type of power that is queer at its heart? We so often feel the consequences of a society that understands “having power” as “having power over.” Fists, boots, batons, guns, bats, and riot gear have made this destructive idea of power all too clear to queer communities, both now and in struggles of the past. Our fight to love must lead us to embrace the power that lies in peace and solidarity, in compassion and empathy, in the struggles to end all suffering. I see the pain and hopelessness of the recent string of LGBTQ-related suicides morbidly paralleled by the fact that the number of military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan amounts to only a third of the number of veterans who have committed suicide or died after coming back from those wars, by the desperation it must take for someone to strap a bomb to their body and turn their death into a mass murder instead of facing a life of misery. I can’t think about the grossly disproportionate numbers of LGBTQ homeless without remembering that 1/3 of homeless adults are veterans or that millions of people are displaced and starving as a result of the U.S. military’s actions in the Middle East and South Asia (not to mention other parts of the world). The society that produced the group of men who brutally tortured 3 gay men in the Bronx—our society—also produced and enabled those who tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, those who continue to advocate for and engage in torture, and those who punish Bradley Manning—an openly gay soldier—for allegedly revealing the brutal truths of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan by holding him in solitary confinement, a practice recognized as torture and amounting to cruel and unusual punishment in light of the fact that he hasn’t yet been convicted of any charges. Our government’s occupation of Iraq significantly worsened the plight of women and LGBTQ Iraqis, and many of the fundamentalist groups that advocate oppressive, violent policies toward women and queer in people in South and West Asia can trace their rise to power directly back to U.S. financial and military support.

We are told that this is what being powerful means, that finding a place in the American dream necessitates turning our heads to collateral damage and giving more bodies and tax dollars to the largest military the world has seen. In response, we must dare to be powerful in ways that reject this idea of power over. We must search the depths of our beings to find ways to love in the place of violence. And we must challenge the mechanisms of oppression that keep power and money rolling into the hands of elites while the great majority of us are left struggling to do something as simple as love.

The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is not a victory for LGBTQ liberation. Though a number of gay and lesbian organizations and individuals have expressed real feelings of increased security and acceptance, the U.S. government has made it alarmingly clear that it does not actually care about the wellbeing of its veterans, that a military job is far from—often the exact opposite of—a guarantee of economic security or social acceptance. On top of this, we cannot stand for a vision of queer liberation that comes at the expense of the rising number of casualties of U.S. American imperialism. Any alleged act of inclusion that pits those oppressed at home against those oppressed abroad and defines power in terms of exploitation and violence is fundamentally at odds with the struggle for a truly free society. Where physical and emotional violence, bullying, suicide, homelessness, mental illness, housing and employment discrimination, police harassment and brutality, and countless other injustices threaten queer people all over our nation, we cannot accept a militarized, superficial version of “justice.” We don’t have time for that. LGBTQ movements and communities are deeply divided. Even as our children kill and torture themselves and each other, we struggle to secure resources for any issues that fall outside mainstream campaigns for marriage equality and DADT repeal. With one of those firmly behind us, it’s time to look to our communities, reassess our goals and strategies, and work to build a holistic, grassroots movement that will settle for nothing less than the fundamental transformation of our oppressive society and the liberation of all people.

As I said at the beginning, let’s get back to work.

Support our troops, queer or otherwise. Bring them home now, and hold them tight when they get here.

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