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.
“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.”