Search and Destroy
In the most recent Gallup poll on the question, in January, 41 percent of Americans said gays should be allowed to serve openly; 38 percent--most of whom wrongly believe the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy is a tolerant one--said gays should be able to serve under the current policy; while only 17 percent think gays should not be able to serve under any circumstances.
The issue flared into the news briefly during the presidential primary campaigns. Bill Bradley, who in 1993 had voted as a senator for outright repeal of the military ban before Clinton signed Don't Ask, Don't Tell into law, reiterated his position in his campaign last September and said he'd expect the military to follow his policy. Until then, Al Gore had said only that he'd implement Don't Ask, Don't Tell with "more compassion."
But competing with Bradley for the gay vote, in December Gore finally came out against Don't Ask, Don't Tell and said he would lift the ban entirely and make this a litmus test for his appointees to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (after the Republicans jumped on him for that last statement, Gore backpedaled somewhat, saying there would be no "political opinion" test for his military appointees). Even President Clinton got around in December to admitting that the current policy was "out of whack" (an unfortunate locution that led to a spate of raunchy jokes by late-night TV comedians). On the GOP side, George Bush declared in the primary debates that "I'm a Don't Ask, Don't Tell man," while John McCain likewise supported the current policy because it's "working."
But, of course, it isn't, as the rising discharge rates and the DoD's own harassment statistics show. Moreover, the Don't Ask and Don't Pursue elements of the current policy are continually violated by commanders, investigating officers and even legal personnel. SLDN, in its March annual report, "Conduct Unbecoming," documented 194 Don't Ask violations from February 1999 to February 2000, a 20 percent increase from the preceding year and the sixth consecutive increase since the policy began. In the same period the SLDN report also detailed 470 Don't Pursue violations, a 34 percent increase. This year, there was an antigay witch hunt at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, which ensnared fourteen enlisted personnel, mostly female. And at the beginning of June, SLDN forced the Navy to admit that for the past two years it has been sending undercover agents into five Washington, DC, gay bars and nightclubs to seek out patrons who are in the military. The Navy claims it's only going after illegal drug use, but SLDN's Benecke calls this "a ruse--our information shows they're only targeting gay establishments."
Congressional supporters of lifting entirely the ban on open gays in the military are deeply pessimistic about any positive legislative changes. "This Congress is not going to overhaul this policy," declares Representative Marty Meehan, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking member of its subcommittee on personnel. Meehan says that "there's no way even to have hearings on harassment now--we'd go backward, not forward." On the Senate side, another longtime opponent of the ban, Massachusetts's John Kerry, likewise paints a bleak picture, at least "until we [the Democrats] get a majority." About all he and his like-minded colleagues can do at this point, he says, is "turn up the heat a notch" on the Pentagon and the Administration. Kerry says that "what's missing is the investigative component" to identify those who engage in or tolerate harassment, and he wants Clinton to issue an executive order for an investigation that would root out violations of the Don't Ask, Don't Harass and Don't Pursue sections of the policy and hold military leadership accountable. In May he and Senator Max Cleland, a paraplegic veteran from Georgia, sent a tart letter to Defense Secretary Cohen pointing up the failure to implement antiharassment training in the armed forces in a meaningful way.
Even Representative Barney Frank, one of the Administration's most visible defenders, says he is "deeply disappointed with the way Bill Cohen has handled the harassment issue." On June 7 Frank and thirty colleagues (including minority leader Dick Gephardt and two GOPers--Connie Morella and Mark Foley) sent an even stronger letter to Cohen calling the Pentagon's failure to curb harassment "disgraceful"; denouncing the promotion of General Clark, the Fort Campbell commander; attacking the Navy and Air Force for trying to recoup training costs from servicemembers discharged as gay, even though this violates the DoD's own policy; and asking for a White House meeting. To date, neither the Kerry/Cleland nor the Frank et al. letters have received anything more than a "we'll get back to you" acknowledgment.
Coming to grips with one's homosexuality when already in uniform is a terrifying experience. The Pentagon has to be forced to take seriously its obligation to provide comprehensive antiharassment training (the training materials are thoroughly confused); to provide a safe way in which victims can report harassment without fear of losing their careers; and to punish not only harassers but those commanders who tolerate harassment (not a single one has been disciplined). Until then, SLDN is the gay servicemembers' only protection.
It's amazing how much this small legal-aid group has accomplished already. Founded in 1993 on a shoestring, SLDN--which has already handled 2,300 cases--is today struggling along on a $1.4 million budget and desperately seeking additional funds for more legal staff to handle the soaring number of harassment complaints. Its "Survival Guide" is the only document that tells military gays how to cope with the current policy and what their rights are (the DoD provides no such material). Jeff Cleghorn, a retired major in US Army military intelligence who got a law degree after he left the service in 1996, is one of SLDN's legal-aid intake staff; he says that the organization's clients "are mostly young people concerned about, if not their physical well-being, then their emotional well-being." SLDN counsels active targets of investigation on "what they can do to minimize the risk of those investigations being either initiated or expanded," Cleghorn says. "If there's harassment or physical threats, we contact base commanders and legal officers and remind them of the investigative limits in the current policy." The group has just under 200 open cases at any one time--but the number is growing. And there's no question that SLDN has saved lives. "Just the other day I had a call from a kid at a naval base in Florida who'd been assaulted physically by several sailors," says Cleghorn; "he was in tears and suicidal. I called the Metropolitan Community Church [a gay denomination] in the city he was in to arrange counseling in a safe space, and contacted the chaplain at his base. He survived. We go with what's there--even if it's just someone who'll give 'em a big hug and listen to their problems."
Bill Clinton, Bill Cohen, Al Gore and their lame-duck Administration still have six months to do something to protect kids like that sailor in Florida. But will they act?
For information or to make a contribution to SLDN: Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, PO Box 65301, Washington, DC 20035-5301 (or www.sldn.org). For free, confidential counseling, call (202) 328-3244.