Civil Rights & Patriotism

"stoke of the pen"– that the current administration’s infamous "don’t ask/
don’t tell" compromise has actually made the situation of gay men and lesbians in the
armed forces worse. This emphasis on overcoming anti-gay discrimination in the military
has, however, prevented the movement from taking a more progressive, and harder, look at
the symbolic and material meaning and world of the military. Two recent
"military" issues have helped define where the gay movement is in relation to
the issue. A new turn in this old story has just occurred as legislators are attempting to
find ways to crush smaller motions to–particularly in academia–to counteract the
military’s anti-gay policy in the form of the Solomon Amendment.

Even the name is misleading: the Solomon Amendment. It has the ring
of wisdom and fairness. Yet beneath its biblical resonance, this fairly obscure amendment
to the 1997 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act is the latest attempt by conservatives
to wipe out gains made by gay and lesbian activists. After more than two decades of
fighting for and winning anti-discrimination policies on college and university campuses,
gay-rights advocates now find that their work is in jeopardy. All signs indicate that this
is the beginning of a new right-wing onslaught on legal protections for gay people.

As written by Republican congressman Gerald B. H. Solomon of New
York’s 22nd District, the amendment states that "none of the funds made available in
this or any other Department of Labor, Health, and Human Services, and Education and
Related Agencies Appropriations Act for any fiscal year may be provided by contract or by
grant (including a grant of funds made available for student aid) to a covered educational
entity if the Secretary of Defense determines that the covered entity has a policy or
practice (regardless of when implemented) that either prohibits, or in effect prevents . .
. the maintaining, establishing, or operation of a Senior Reserve Officer Training Corps
[ROTC]" or "entry to campus or access to students (who are 17 years of age or
older) on campuses for purposes of Federal military recruiting."

In simple language, this means that a school stands to lose money if
it has banished ROTC programs or forbidden recruiters from branches of the armed services
from coming on campus, because of the U.S. military’s policy of discriminating against gay
men and lesbians. Of course, if the school allows the military back on campus, the funds
will be available once again. The ramifications of this could be tremendous, especially
where student loans are concerned. Boston College estimates that it would lose up to $1.5
million in Perkins loans and work-study grants, according to an open letter sent to
students, faculty, and staff this past September by interim dean James S. Rogers. Other
schools could be hit even harder. In some cases, this loss of federal funding could
seriously harm a school’s ability to seek and maintain diversity in the student

Although the Solomon Amendment is relatively new, the place of the
U.S. military in institutions of higher education has been contested for decades. During
the Vietnam war, for example, many students, professors, and administrators demanded that
ROTC units be banished from campuses and that work on defense contracts be canceled
because the U.S. government was involved in an undeclared, illegal, genocidal war.
Protesters argued that the only way to "do the right thing" was to sever all
ties with the military. The sentiments were similar when queer activists began challenging
the military’s gay ban. As schools began to expand their anti-discrimination policies to
include protections for gay people, it was military recruiters–offering job opportunities
only to avowed heterosexuals–who were denied access to campuses. This action angered the
armed forces, the federal government, and those (mostly heterosexual) students who
supported the rights of the military to recruit on campus.

What especially disturbed the military and its defenders was that
gay activists and their allies were using the existing principle of anti-discrimination,
an ideal that is difficult to argue with. To many conservatives, exiling recruiters from
campuses was a blatantly gay slap in the face, yet there seemed to be little they could
do. The Solomon Amendment cut through this dilemma by punishing those schools that barred
recruitment or ROTC, without ever using the word gay. For gay activists and college
administrators, the result has been some conundrums of their own. For starters, the
amendment was introduced in such a way that hardly anyone noticed. Because it never
mentions homosexuality, it seems to have flown beneath the radar screen of gay legal
experts, notes the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Jennifer Middleton. This
problem was compounded by the fact that legal enforcement of the amendment has been
selective. Some schools that bar recruiters have been notified that federal funds will be
denied unless the policy is reversed; others have not. Meanwhile, the schools affected
have not mounted a unified response. New York University, for example, has refused to
comply and lost federal funding, while Harvard has complied with the most minimal
requirements of the amendment (allowing recruiters on campus but doing nothing more to aid
them) and preserved its funding. This lack of focus has made it difficult to mount a
protest against the amendment.

The ACLU is investigating ways to circumvent the amendment’s
demands, but little effort has been made on the part of the schools to organize a
collective response. At this point, it seems there is little that can be done. Middleton
says that although constitutional challenges have been investigated, there is no strong
legal case against the Solomon Amendment. In fact, the ACLU has determined that if such a
case were to go to the Supreme Court, it would likely lose. At this point, the ACLU is
focusing on helping schools maintain a policy of minimal compliance.

It is not surprising that the Solomon Amendment should come at this
point in history. While its direct aim is to undercut anti-discrimination policies
affecting homosexuals, it is clearly part of a much larger attempt on the part of
conservatives to undermine and eliminate a wide range of legal protections, including
broader affirmative-action and confidentiality laws. The Solomon Amendment should be
viewed as one more step–a crafty, innovative, and dangerous one–in eroding the numerous,
if fragile, gains we have made to secure equal rights for gay men and lesbians.

Obviously it is important for gay rights advocates and academics to
find ways to counteract the Solomon Amendment, but the terms of the debate are skewered.
Many progressive and leftist homosexuals have long argued for a critique that attacked the
military, the U.S. policy it enforces, and militarism in general. Yet the mainstream gay
rights movement–particularly when it is insisting that gay people should get some basic
civil rights they are lacking because to be "loyal Americans"–has chosen not to
focus on this at all. No where is this clearer than in the campaign that Col. Margarethe
Cammermeyer–a lesbian who was forced to resign her post after she came out–recently
waged, and lost, a fight for a congressional seat. Here the complications of what it means
to be a "loyal American" and a lesbian/gay person were displayed for all to see.

It is 1995 and there on the television screen was Glenn Close
playing Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer as she challenged the Armed Forces rabidly
homophobic military policy. Standing tall, proud, and butch in her Navy uniform and
wearing her Bronze star for bravery in Vietnam Close was a Hollywood vision of gay and
lesbian pride, a sterling example of American patriotism, and Serving in Silence,
the made-for-TV movie, was a dazzling feat of entertaining agit-prop that humanized for
many heterosexual Americans the plight of lesbian and gay military personal.

This past November, as if in a made-for-TV sequel, Margarethe
Cammermeyer ran for seat in the House of Representatives from the Second Congressional
district outside of Seattle, Washington. In her campaign photos she was as proud, handsome
and butch as Close was in the film, and–as in the film–in all of her press material
Cammermeyer studiously promotes her involvement in the Vietnam war as a sign of her
bravery and a symbol of her loyalty to America. But it is the specter of Vietnam that
haunts not only Cammermeyer’s constructed public image as a "real" American (as
well as her involvement in this disgraceful chapter in U.S. history) but highlights the
increasingly dominant role that militarism plays in American life and politics–and, more
importantly, how this militarism has affected the gay rights movement.

Certainly Cammermeyer’s role in the Vietnam war–she served as a
nurse in field hospitals between February 1967 and May 1968, a time of intense fighting
and the bloody Tet offensive –was small yet reading through Serving in Silence,
her 1994 autobiography, is a disquieting experience. Here Cammermeyer presents her
experience in the mythic, my country-right-or-wrong terms that define, in its blind
dedication to unthinking patriotism, an almost fanatic nationalism: the sort of
Americanism" that has always been used against everyone who did not fit the American

In Serving in Silence Cammermeyer has no sympathy for anyone
who protested and resisted the war – "…I didn’t understand how anything but
cowardice could make citizens run from their own country to avoid serving.. I couldn’t see
anything… that showed me they were acting out of principle." She also snidely
attacks the "South" Vietnamese for being uneducated, slow, or lazy. "By
noon the Vietnamese nurses were exhausted and wanted their customary mid-afternoon nap.
There was nothing to do but accommodate them, and for several hours they all slept as we
continued with out duties." In explaining the resentment and hatred that U.S. troops
felt towards all Vietnamese, Cammermeyer resorts to the classic racist argument that all
Vietnamese looked alike. "You could never tell who was the good guy and who was the
bad guy." Worse yet, Cammermeyer’s configuring of an ultra-conservative national
identity prohibits her from admitting that the U.S.’s Vietnam policy was a mistake.
Cammermeyer claims that while her view of the war has changed somewhat over the years she
cannot discuss "whether or not American should have been in the war… to many
[American] lives were lost. [I] cannot regret or denigrate America’s participation in the
war because to do so would be to take away from the sacrifice of those alongside whom we

While Cammermeyer’s inability to recognize the murderous harm of the
Vietnam war is shocking –and her tribute to American lives lost is overtly insulting in
light of the fact that while 58,000 U.S. soldiers lost their lives, 3,000,000 Vietnamese
soldiers and civilians (including untold numbers of women and children) died. What is at
stake here is not what she did during the war, or even how she feels about it now, but how
this explicit, unapologetic militarism promotes her image as a loyal American and good
citizen–a stand that has enormous political and social ramifications for what it means to
be an American" and how the gay movement makes its moral and political arguments.

The mainstream gay rights movement’s central argument is predicated
on the notion that gay people deserve equal rights because homosexuality is an
insignificant "difference" and that gay people are capable of being as brave,
loyal, patriotic, as any "good American." This idea finds its most blatant
manifestation in the "gays in the military" fight and it is a theme that runs
through Cammermeyer’s book as well as memoirs by James Holobough, Mary Ann Humphries,
Joseph Steffan, and Jose Zuniga, all of whom have fought to stay–homosexuals–in the
armed forces.

The result of this argument is both ironic and tragic. On one hand,
the insistence that gay people be given equal rights because they are patriotic Americans
ends up negating the existence and the importance of their homosexuality. What if
Cammermeyer had refused to fight in Viet Nam because she thought the war immoral? Would
she be any less an American? Would she not deserves equal rights. When basic civil
rights–not to mention human rights–are linked , in any way, to a prescribed national
loyalty they are in a dangerous and tenuous position. Secondly, when
patriotism–particularly the kind that Cammermeyer embraces in


Serving in Silence–is so inextricably bound up with unthinking
support of U.S. foreign military policies it becomes dangerous both to the U.S. and to the
world. Since Vietnam we have seen two decades of aggressive U.S. military policy–the
bombing of Libya, the occupation of Lebanon, the invasions of Granada and Panama, the Gulf
War, the recent bombings of Afghanistan and the Sudan–that many U.S. citizens and
certainly many countries around the world see as dangerous, even criminal economic and
political excursions.

What does this mean for gay people and gay rights? Primarily, it
effects how we argue for gay rights. While the fight for just treatment of gay military
personal is ostensibly a civil rights issue, it has taken on, for gay activists as well as
the popular media, a metaphorical quality as well. Gays in the military (and gay people in
general) are worthy of equal treatment because they are loyal, patriotic Americans. The
constant presentation of Margarethe Cammermeyer as a war hero and a "good
American," in her book, the TV film, in her campaign material, reinforces this idea.

But secondly, this–extremely limited–definition of who is a
"good American" hurts us all because it places the battle for equal rights in
the context of supporting specific, usually very conservative and often militaristic, U.S.
policies. The fight for gay and lesbian rights has traditionally been conceptualized as
the quest for gay people to becoming full American citizens–as activist Torrie Osborn
writes, to "come home to America." But this is a parochial, provincial position
and in many ways the gay rights movement in the U.S. has acted blindly and awkwardly. As
gay people struggle to "become Americans" it behooves us to really look at what
being an American means in the world today. Isn’t it better to attempt to become
individuals and a community whose identity comes from acting morally and righteously. To
be a community whose commitment to freedom, social progress, and human rights make us
citizens of the world and not just of the United States. As long as we attempt to become
free by being "good Americans" we can only be as free–and as just–as America
is today.

Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex,
Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s Press).