Search and Destroy
Many left-wing gays were uncomfortable at seeing precious energies squandered in combat for the right to serve in a military they disdained and distrusted. But once the issue was joined, the movement had no choice but to confront the tidal wave of slurs against same-sexers deployed by four-star homophobes like Colin Powell and bigoted politicians like Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn. And all the more so because military homophobia is also a class issue: The overwhelming majority of its victims are young recruits who joined up to get an education or career, lured by the bright promises of flashy ad campaigns and aggressive high school recruiting, often before they admit to themselves they're gay.
Even the Department of Defense itself has now been forced to admit that harassment of uniformed gays remains widespread. In March the DoD Inspector General released a survey of 71,570 active-duty servicemembers revealing that 80 percent of those who filled out questionnaires reported hearing "offensive" antigay remarks. Nearly 10 percent said they had witnessed physical assault. Significant numbers also reported "offensive or hostile gestures," "threats or intimidation," graffiti, vandalism, "limiting or denying training and/or career opportunities," and "disciplinary actions or punishment" not of the bigots but of their victims ("for example, being punished for something when others were not"). Most telling, of those who said their "cited situation" was witnessed by someone senior to either the person being harassed or the harasser, 73 percent said "the senior person did nothing to immediately stop the harassment."
If the Clinton Administration had really been serious about protecting gays in the military, the Pentagon would have conducted such a survey long ago. That it happened at all was due to two things: increased pressure from SLDN, which has documented rising harassment and discrimination in a series of meticulous annual reports for the past six years; and the particularly grisly antigay murder of a soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on July 5, 1999.
Pvt. Barry Winchell was only 21 when, after enduring four months of verbal and physical assault, he was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by a fellow soldier. Winchell, who had been asleep in his cot, was left with his skull shattered "like an eggshell," according to an Army investigator, his eyes black and swollen shut, his brains oozing from his head. Winchell had confided to two friends that he was afraid to report the escalating daily harassment that led to his murder, because he would risk being kicked out of the Army.
It was five months after Private Winchell's murder when Defense Secretary William Cohen finally ordered the IG survey of antigay harassment throughout the armed services. But even now, the Army is refusing to release its IG's report on the antigay climate of terror that reigned at Fort Campbell under its commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Clark. "We provided a lot of evidence of antigay harassment there and how it was tolerated by superior officers," says SLDN's Benecke.
To take just two examples: Fort Campbell Pvt. Javier Torres gave a sworn statement to SLDN that, just months after Private Winchell was murdered, his unit's staff sergeant led them on a run singing in cadence, "Faggot, faggot, down the street/Shot him, shot him, till he retreats." Another Fort Campbell sergeant, assigned to brief a unit on the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, repeatedly called the training session the "fag briefing" and referred to gay soldiers as "fags."
"We asked the IG conducting the Fort Campbell investigation, 'How can servicemembers contact you?' and he told us to our faces that he believed that he was obliged to turn in as gay any servicemember who said he was a victim of antigay harassment," says Benecke. Although the IG report on Fort Campbell was due to be released on May 1, the Army has postponed giving the report to the Secretary of the Army until July 1--conveniently after General Clark's June 9 advancement to a prestigious Pentagon post as Vice Director (J3) of Plans and Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As Benecke points out, "This is the man who allowed the harassment at Fort Campbell to exist, and to continue even after Private Winchell's murder. As of February 20, twenty soldiers at Fort Campbell have come out because of their fear. Clark deserves to be dismissed." Retaining Clark in uniform--and even rewarding him--sends a clear signal that servicemembers can continue to harass with impunity.
That's certainly the impression that Clinton Administration policy has left with many military commanders and their subordinates. Not until March 1997 did the DoD get around to issuing "Guidelines for Investigating Threats Against Service Members Based on Alleged Homosexuality," by Under Secretary of Defense Edwin Dorn, designed to implement the 1993 Don't Harass, Don't Pursue policy. But SLDN forced the Pentagon to admit in April 1998 that it had never distributed the guidelines to the field. And it was not until after Private Winchell's murder fifteen months later that the Dorn report was finally distributed. In the IG harassment survey this past March, 57 percent of respondents said they had received no training on the policy; of the 54 percent who claimed they understood it, only 26 percent were able to answer the three most basic questions about it.