Search and Destroy | The Nation


Search and Destroy

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In the wake of Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy's high-profile sexual harassment case against another Army general (who himself had just been put in charge of investigating sexual harassment!), the mainstream media have given a substantial amount of coverage to the appalling rates of sexual harassment of women in the armed forces. But you would be hard pressed to find in these news reports any mention of one of the principal spurs to this harassment: the policy on gays in the military, popularly known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

About the Author

Doug Ireland
Doug Ireland, a longtime Nation contributor who lived in France for a decade, can be reached through his blog, Direland.

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Northampton, Mass.

Fires and rioting in France are the result of thirty years of
government neglect and the failure of the French political classes to
make any serious effort to integrate Muslim and black populations into
the French economy and culture.

"You can't separate this policy from sexual harassment," says Michelle Benecke, a former captain of US Army defense artillery--and a Harvard-trained lawyer--who is the co-founder and co-director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). "A lot of the perception that women in the services are gay stems from the fact that they're not sleeping with anyone in their unit," Benecke says. "The Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy pressures young women into sexual activity with their superiors by making them subject to the threat of discharge as gay."

The Defense Department's own discharge figures support Benecke's contention that women are being disproportionately targeted by the policy: Women accounted for 31 percent of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell discharges in 1999, even though they are only 14 percent of the uniformed services. The numbers are most striking in the Army, where women are only 15 percent of the force but 35 percent of the gay discharges; in the Air Force, where they are 18 percent, compared with 37 percent of discharges; and in the Marines, where women are 6 percent of the Corps but account for 21 percent of those discharged. Since lesbian-baiting is the military man's best defense against charges of sexual harassment, these numbers help explain why many women in the military are afraid to report such conduct, let alone tell their superiors about antigay harassment.

Nicole B. was 21 when she joined the Navy in 1995 and became a second-class petty officer in the weather-forecasting service. At a Navy forecasting school in Biloxi, Mississippi, her Marine instructor in oceanography "was constantly making antigay jokes. Rumors had circulated that I was gay, and this instructor would make cracks about 'dikes in the water' and turn to me saying, 'Don't get too excited about the word.'" Things got worse when Nicole was sent to a small base in Texas after she told her chief about the antigay harassment of a male sailor friend in her unit, who was constantly being "baited as a 'fag,' 'a woman,' a 'guy who wears makeup.'" Then someone "wrote a message on my car that said, 'You suck dick and eat pussy,'" Nicole says. "I was terrified and fearful for my life. It just got worse, and I cried every day." After Nicole finally reported the harassment to her chief, she says, "He told me, 'I just want to reach over and slap your face.'" Since three superior officers had harassed Nicole, she "didn't feel there was anybody among my chiefs who'd back me up if I was assaulted. I loved the Navy, but it's so difficult when you have to hide, make up a boyfriend, censor your social conversation. Then I got into a relationship, and that's when it became clear to me that I wasn't going to be able to deal with this, that I had to give it up. That was very hard." Nicole got in touch with SLDN, which helped her write a coming-out letter to her commanding officer. She was discharged last year, but says, "I still miss the Navy--I'm encouraging my little nephew to become a Navy pilot."

Petty Officer Nicole B.'s experiences typify the ways in which even gays who try to be discreet have been increasingly subject to harassment and expulsion under the current policy. Not only has the policy--its correct name is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Harass, Don't Pursue"--failed to diminish discharges of gay servicemembers; it has actually increased them, from 617 in 1994 to 1,034 in 1999, at a cost of more than $161 million (based on General Accounting Office figures) in training replacements for those discharged. And the policy has spurred soaring rates of verbal abuse and physical violence, even murder.

This disastrous policy was born out of Bill Clinton's refusal to honor his 1992 campaign pledge to let gays serve openly in uniform. In large part because of his own reputation as a draft dodger, Clinton knuckled under to pressure from the generals and admirals and their allies in Congress, thus betraying the principle of civilian control of the military and sending a signal to the Pentagon crowd that he could be rolled (as ever-increasing military-procurement budgets in his two terms have shown).

Moreover, Clinton's capitulation forced the gay movement to fight on a battleground not of its own choosing. The 1993 gay-run Campaign for Military Service not only strained the movement's limited resources; the losing effort was also a PR disaster for gay politics that undercut the chance to pass the critically important Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) while Democrats still controlled the Congress.

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