Search and Destroy
"The new policy is worse than the old, much worse," says Professor Janet Halley of Harvard Law School, who last year published Don't: A Reader's Guide to the Military's Anti-Gay Policy (Duke). "Under the old policy, you could be discharged if it was found out you had a 'homosexual orientation.' The new policy says you can be discharged if you have manifested a 'propensity' to engage in homosexual acts. 'Propensity' is judged by 'conduct,' but that can mean anything from having a Melissa Etheridge poster on your wall to wearing short hair and a thick, black watchband to refusing to have sex with a man," she says, citing real examples from discharge cases. Moreover, Halley says, to escape expulsion "you have to prove that you have no propensity, so the only defense is an identity defense, a status defense--you have to prove you're straight." And the judgment about "propensity" is an entirely subjective one, which means treatment of gay military personnel varies greatly from command to command.
That was the experience of Petty Officer First Class Larry Glover, who was discharged February 25 from the Navy after fifteen years for being gay: "I went from two commands that were not too bad to one that was pure hell," he says. Like so many others, Glover says he "didn't figure out that I was gay until I'd been in the Navy for three years--I had fought it up until then." For Glover, joining one of the uniformed branches was an escape route from both a stunted economic situation and from "a small town in East Tennessee in the middle of the Bible Belt--for me, it was a way of getting out to see the world." Glover has earned ten medals--"I rattle when I walk," he chuckles. He even has a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for having risked his life to save a $77 million plane from going over the side of an aircraft carrier in high seas.
In his first two commands, Glover was eventually accepted by the sailors he worked with--"Once I told them, 'Yes, I'm gay, so what?' the issue went away." But on his last shipboard posting, the antigay atmosphere was particularly virulent. Glover found himself having to stand up for younger sailors who were being harassed as gay: "It was my job as a person in a leadership position. I put myself on the line every day. I witnessed spray-painting of the word 'fag,' destruction of private property or of uniforms in lockers--things like filling the lock with glue so sailors couldn't get to their uniforms, which caused them to be late, which got them punished. I witnessed chief petty officers using terms like 'the little fag,' 'the little butt-bandit,' 'ball breath.' One kid had a complete nervous breakdown--I took him off the ship crying." Glover's attempts to protect younger sailors led to his "being threatened" with negative performance evaluations. By this time he was in a relationship, and the effects of harassment and the pressure to be closeted "limits your compatibility with your partner; the job just wasn't worth what I was putting in. A friend high up in the military that I'd met at a gay bar told me about SLDN and gave me their number. They helped me write my coming-out letter to my commander. The day I heard they were going to process my discharge papers, I put a rainbow sticker on my locker." Glover, who had to give up $850,000 in pay and retirement benefits when he chose to stop hiding, now says, "I'm distraught with the Defense Department and government in general," adding, "We've got to fix this policy--we just have to."
Most of America's major NATO allies now allow gays to serve openly in the military, including France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada. Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Israel do as well. Britain was forced last fall by the European Court of Human Rights to end its military ban on gays and has now embraced them, even inviting gay soldiers who had been discharged to apply for reinstatement. Dr. David Segal, who directs the University of Maryland's Center for Research on Military Organization--which studies comparative military institutions--says that "there is no evidence from any country we've looked at that lifting the ban on gays impacts negatively on either unit cohesion or performance." He adds, "There's no question that the direction of social change will eventually deal with sexual orientation as irrelevant in terms of the military."
The Pentagon's brass hats know this is true. Aaron Belkin, who directs the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, points out that "gay discharges always go down in wartime. During the Korean and Vietnam wars there were about half as many such discharges as in peacetime. In World War II the discharge rate was substantially lower than in the postwar period. In the Persian Gulf War, the military had a 'stop-loss' order that suspended gay expulsions. What the Pentagon is saying is, when unit cohesion is most important and our survival is at stake, we'll keep them in. There is no intellectually honest case to be made that gays undermine cohesion in the military." Quite the reverse: The current US policy saps unit cohesion by subjecting gay servicemembers to career-ending blackmail.
The hypocrisy of the Pentagon's attitude is underscored by one of the Army's first African-American generals, Maj. Gen. Vance Coleman, who retired in 1989: "Gays have been serving honorably in the military ever since it existed. It's never a problem until the leadership makes it one." Coleman compares the arguments against openly serving gays to those deployed against lifting the ban on racial segregation in the armed forces: "It's the same thing. Close your eyes, sit in a room and listen to the generals' discussions--you hear the same reasons." The right of gay people to serve openly is, Coleman says, "a legitimate civil rights and human rights question. It shouldn't even be an issue."
However, given the current conservative composition of our judiciary, it is unlikely that court challenges to the military's antigay policy will prevail in the foreseeable future. The Supreme Court has declined to hear five cases challenging the constitutionality of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and all four of the eleven federal circuit courts in which the policy has so far been challenged have upheld it. That kicks the ball back into the political arena.