BATTLES LOOM AS TO WHEN GAYS WILL SERVE OPENLY IN MILITARY; LOCAL LEADERS AIR THEIR VIEWS

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this

By E.A. Barrera

 

"The Navy knew that they had a large gay population. During one particular ‘Naval Investigative Services’ witch-hunt in 1976, one of my commanders commented that if they uncovered and removed all the people in the Navy who were gay, the Navy wouldn’t be able to function. But the climate was severe and it was one of the reasons I finally decided I’d had enough." --Robert Pedrick, Captain (Retired); US Navy, 1961-1985

 

May 25, 2009 (San Diego)--During the waning days of May and into early June - as Congress debates President Barack Obama's Defense budget - competing voices have raged in the battle to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding gays serving in the US military. The twist however to this now two decades old argument, is not about whether gays should be allowed to serve in the military ... but when the law banning such service will be repealed.

 

On May 25, Admiral Michael Mullen, who serves as President Obama's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon would comply if Congress repealed the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. Speaking to ABC's George Stephanopoulos on his weekly Sunday morning program "This Week", Mullen said he was working on an assessment of what overturning "don’t ask, don’t tell" policies would mean for the military.

 

"The president has made his strategic intent very clear, that it’s his intent at some point in time to ask Congress to change this law," said Mullen. "I think it’s important to also know that this is the law, this isn’t a policy. And for the rules to change, a law has to be changed." Mullen said the Pentagon would operate under existing rules, banning gay service members from revealing their sexual identities, until Congress changed the law. Since Obama's election, advocates of repealing the ban on gays serving in the military have been waiting for the President to issue an executive order repealing DADT. Mullen made it clear that only Congress had authority to change Don't Ask, Don't Tell, as it was a federal law and not simply military policy.

 

This point was reiterated by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs earlier this month. "Try as one may, a president can’t simply whisk away standing law of the United States of America. But if you’re going to change the policy, if it is the law of the land, you have to do it through an act of Congress," said Gibbs.

 

This year marks the 16th anniversary of President Clinton’s historic and ultimately losing battle to allow gays to openly serve in the military. June marks the 15th anniversary of implementation of his Administration’s controversial decision - which ostensibly left the ban in place.

 

"Repeal will not happen without your taking the case to the Pentagon, to Congress, and to the American people. You are a natural leader, Mr. President. We are approaching a critical moment in this debate. Now is the time to lead. Failing to speak out against "don't ask, don't tell" in your own Defense Department budget really does mean that you are giving the green light to the content and enforcement of this law. We can't ignore the reality that it will then become Obama's law," wrote Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). Sarvis said the "logical place and time" for presidential leadership on repeal of DADT would be when Obama sent his defense budget to Congress. "Keep your promise, Mr. President, and ask Congress and the American people to join you in standing against this reprehensible law that tortures every day so many young men and women who want to serve our country. Consign it to the dustbin of history where it belongs."

 

But leading gay and lesbian political figures across the nation have advocated patience, fearing that the American public will have little desire for a debate over gays serving in the armed forces while in the midst of the worst economic crises since The Great Depression.

 

"I believe we should and will do 'don't ask, don' tell' next year," said Congressman Barney Frank in Roll Call magazine on April 27.. "We haven't done the preliminary work, the preparatory work. It would be a mistake to bring it up without a lot of lobbying and a lot of conversation." Frank - chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and perhaps the dean of openly gay lawmakers on Capitol Hill, was joined by openly lesbian Wisconsin Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin.

 

"We don't even know the votes in committee, let alone the votes on the floor. … So I think the prediction it will not happen in calendar year 2009 is probably accurate," said Baldwin. "People have to understand the political pressures," added Frank. "The question is when to do it. The key issues are not procedural, it's political."

 

Intended to end the witch hunts on gay service members, Clinton’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy was developed as a compromise between the existing outright ban and the complete lifting of that ban many believed the Administration would deliver. Yet fifteen years later, California Democratic congresswoman Ellen O. Tauscher of the Bay Area has introduced a bill that would end the policy and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Tauscher (who recently announced she would leave the House to work as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security with Hillary Clinton), said the existing costs of the policy are too great in terms of the nation’s recruiting needs, as well as for those who were let go from the service over the years due to their sexuality.

 

"With fifteen years of social progress and the recent sea of change we have witnessed in the national political landscape, I am further encouraged that now is definitely the time to act," said Tauscher on March 2 upon introducing the legislation.

 

The bill - House Resolution 1283 - would repeal the current federal law banning military service by openly lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans. The bill would create new provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the armed forces. HR-1283 would only affect the status of homosexuality in the military and would not change regulations regarding the personal conduct of military members. Soldiers and sailors who had been discharged from the military due to their sexual orientation would be eligible to apply for reinstatement in the military.

 

"Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would strengthen military readiness, retention and recruitment across the board, said Tauscher in her legislation, which is currently co-sponsored by over 130 members of the House, including local representatives Susan Davis and Bob Filner. "Repeal would enable the military to attract and retain critical personnel. Nearly 13,000 service members have been discharged under "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" since 1993, and strong evidence suggests that countless others have made the choice not to join the military or have left military service at the end of their commitments rather than serve under this discriminatory law."

 

Tauscher cited a 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which said almost 800 persons discharged under "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" had skills deemed "mission critical" by the military. The report stated that from fiscal year 1994, through fiscal year 2003 the military services "separated about 9,500 service members" for homosexual conduct. However, GAO said this represented less than half a percent of the "2.37 million members separated for all reasons" during this period.

 

"Questions have been raised about the costs of separating service members for homosexual conduct," stated the GAO report. "Also, in the post-September 11th environment, there has been concern about the separation of service members with critical occupations or important foreign language skills in, for example, Arabic."

 

GAO estimated that the cost to train replacements for separated service members by occupation was approximately $48.8 million in the Navy, $29.7 million in the Army and $16.6 million in the Air Force. GAO said close to 8-percent of the "9,488 service members separated for homosexual conduct" held critical occupations, identified by the Department of Defense (DOD) as those occupations "worthy of selective reenlistment bonuses."

 

Tauscher said this fact made American defense capabilities weaker, since it deprived the military of trained personnel. "Discharging linguists, doctors, nurses, mechanics, infantrymen and intelligence analysts for no other reason than because of their sexual orientation weakens readiness and undermines unit cohesion. Allowing all qualified Americans to serve regardless of sexual orientation will make every branch of our military stronger," said Tauscher.

 

During a speech to the American Center for Progress last March, Tauscher noted the history of the military's policy on gays and lesbians. "To understand why we need to move forward, it’s important to understand where we stand and where we have been," said Tauscher. "Before World War II, the military had no official policy barring gay men and women from serving in the military. That does not mean there was not any discrimination; it just means it was not official policy." Tauscher said in 1940, the War Department defined homosexual orientation as a psychiatric handicap and disqualifying deviation. A soldier could get up to twelve years of military confinement and a dishonorable discharge.

 

This point was confirmed by the late Herb King. A biologist out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, King was recruited for officer training after his undergraduate thesis on compact emergency rations gained the attention of the military. "Most people my generation knew nothing about homosexuality. There was complete suppression," said King during one of his last interviews in May 2001 with this reporter. King died of a heart attack at age 83 in September of 2001. "I guess in my heart I knew who I was. I’d always been attracted to men. But at that time, it was considered a sickness. You tried to live your life in denial."

 

King, who achieved the rank of Major, served in the army for five years - seeing action in North Africa and Italy under the 2nd Armored Division of General George Patton during World War II. Looking back on the years he served his country, King said he felt they were some of the best years of his life, though he said he never revealed who he was while he served. The bitterness King held over the way gays were treated lasted the rest of his life. "I was a better officer because I was gay. I cared about the men in my command. Straight or gay, these men served bravely and many died for their country. How can anyone justify the abuse and harassment of people who fight and risk their lives, just because of their sexual orientation — a thing they have no control over?" asked King.

 

Under Article 125 of the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, it is against the law to be homosexual in the military. This regulation was enacted in 1950. The irony of America’s post-war attitude towards homosexuals was that as the American population slowly increased their tolerance and support for gay civil rights, the military imposed harsher and stricter regulations concerning homosexual behavior within their ranks.

 

The Stonewall rebellion of 1969, the election of Harvey Milk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, and the coming-out of such congressional leaders as Barney Frank and Gerry Studds in the 1980s, marked the emergence of a gay political front increasing in its power. However, at the same time, directives from the White House and Congress made it harder for gays to serve openly. A stricter policy on sexual conformity became standard practice during the 1970s and 1980s, demanding automatic expulsion for service members deemed to be gay or engaging in homosexual activity.

"Homosexuality is incompatible with military service," said W. Graham Claytor, a deputy Secretary of Defense under former President Jimmy Carter. His 1980 statement was based on the case of Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, an Air Force serviceman and Purple Heart recipient discharged from the military after it was learned he was gay. The Carter Administration (Carter - a 1947 graduate of the US Naval Academy) determined there was a detrimental effect to the "mutual trust, privacy, recruitment, and public acceptance" in allowing gays to serve in the military.

 

Between 1980 and 1990, the armed forces discharged an average of 1,500 service men and women per year, because of their sexual orientation. The rise of the AIDS epidemic during those years only added fuel to the arguments made by anti-gay political and military leaders. It was maintained that by allowing gays to serve in the military, the risk of exposure to AIDS would increase, and thus America’s defense readiness be undermined.

 

Bob Pedrick, an openly gay former Navy Captain who served from 1961 through 1985, said that the climate under which gays served during those years was tough. "It was always a game you had to play. I loved the Navy, but you had to pretend to be something you weren’t. There was a gay under-culture which had always existed, but as the years went on and the penalties became harsher, that under-culture grew tighter and more secretive," said Pedrick in 2001.

 

The anti-gay attitude fostered by both Washington D.C. and the military continued through the 1988 presidential contest. Both Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and Republican George H.W. Bush vowed to maintain the ban on gays in the military. But a report prepared for the Pentagon and made public by Congressman Studds that same year, cast serious doubt on the policy.

 

"Studies of homosexual veterans make clear that having a same gender or opposite gender orientation is unrelated to job performance in the same way as is being left-handed or right-handed," stated the Pentagon study.

 

Four years later, the climate was very different. The Army’s discharge of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer in May of 1992, brought the issue of gays serving in the military into the presidential campaign and caught the eye of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. Cammermeyer, a 26-year, decorated Vietnam veteran, was expelled from her post in the Washington State Army National Guard because she admitted her homosexuality. Her story was broadcast on the CBS news program 60 Minutes.

 

Clinton garnered the support of gays and those who supported gay civil rights when he announced that he would order an end to the policy banning gays from service if he were to win the presidency. In November of 1992, U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter ruled that the ban on gays serving in the military was unconstitutional. The case involved Naval Senior Chief Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, who’d been forced to accept an honorable discharge after publicly proclaiming he was gay. Judge Hatter declared that there was "no rational basis for the military’s policy excluding gays" and ordered the Navy to reinstate Meinhold. After his court victory, Meinhold - based in San Diego - was asked if he thought this ruling by Judge Hatter signaled the end of the military’s ban on gays serving in the armed forces. Meinhold said he was very optimistic in the wake of the election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore to the White House that same year. "I have great faith in Bill Clinton. I think he’ll keep his promise to end the ban," said Meinhold.

 

But within three weeks after being sworn in as the 42nd President of the United States, Clinton became embroiled in the controversy over lifting the ban on gays in the military. Critics argued Clinton - who had never served in the military - did not understand military culture and was undermining morale by attempting to lift the ban.

 

"That issue permanently damaged his presidency," said King, who was also active within local gay politics and the San Diego Democratic Club. "He handled it badly, made supporters like myself very bitter towards him, and it will always go down in the gay and lesbian culture as a betrayal on his part." Clinton faced furious opposition to lifting the ban from among others, General Colin Powell. The first African-American to serve as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell repeatedly insisted that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military would "undermine the cohesion and well-being of the force." Powell was supported by Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, as well as many political leaders coming from states with large military populations.

 

A February 1993 poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that 76 percent of enlisted men and 55 percent of enlisted women wanted to maintain the ban on gays serving in the military.

 

"The military simply must not and need not adhere to the same rules as civilian employment. Although the military defends the principles of democratic society, it cannot fully embody them. Its end is victory, not equity; its virtue is courage, not justice; its structure is authoritarian, not pluralistic," said retired Army Colonel David Hackworth in a June 28, 1992 column for the Washington Post. Those who wanted to see the ban lifted, argued that the same questions being raised about the detrimental effects to cohesion and morale with gays, had been used 45 years earlier during the debate over integration of blacks in the military. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ended the forced segregation of blacks from whites in the U.S. military.

 

"My very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as president I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this," said President Truman in a 1947 letter to Congress.

 

But Powell did not see racial segregation and the ban on gays in the military as co-equal. "Skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient, but invalid argument," said Powell in a letter to Congress. "Powell is a guttersnipe," said King with all the bitterness he could muster. "For a man who’s experienced the racism of America to be so bigoted when it comes to gays and lesbians is intolerable," added King.

 

Clinton grew noticeably angry during a February 1993 press conference when it became clear that few within his own party had the stomach to stand up to General Powell and the military culture of this country.

 

"It is wrong that a person who has honorably served their country in uniform is harassed, sometimes threatened, and always punished simply because of their sexual orientation," said Clinton. But with little support from Congress and zero support from military leaders, Clinton was pressured to end the debate and accept a compromise on lifting the ban. Written by Senator Nunn, that compromise became known as "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don't Pursue."

 

The new policy essentially maintained the ban on gays serving in the military. It forbade gays and lesbians within the armed services from revealing their sexuality - including such actions as holding hands, maintaining photographs of same-sex partners on desks or in lockers, and demonstrating any form of romantic or sexual behavior to a person of the same sex. But the new policy was also supposed to forbid inquiries into a soldier's personal life. This last point was not followed, say critics of DADT.

 

"‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ made the entire situation much worse," said former U.S. Marine Len Regan during a 2001 interview with this reporter. Regan served in the military from 1981-1986. Like King and Pedrick, he said he enjoyed his time in the service. "I was a good marine. Yes I lied during the induction process. I never verbally admitted I was gay. But during the entire time I served in the marines, I never hid the fact that I was gay. I worked part time as a bartender at a gay club ... off base in Cherry Point, North Carolina. People in the marines knew I was gay, but that never stopped me from getting promoted on three occasions," said Regan. Regan, who left the marines with the rank of Corporal, said that when he served, nobody really cared about the homosexual issue, as long as that person did his job well. "I knew people who were thrown out for being gay. But those people also happened to be lousy Marines. The Marine Corps is very strict. One of the things I loved about it was the culture of discipline and physical rigor," said Regan. "The Marines expect you to keep a tight appearance and orderly environment. Those who got kicked-out were usually dirty or sloppy. That happened to both homosexual and heterosexual Marines. I also knew gay Marines who were caught, but allowed to stay in the Marines because they were good Marines," continued Regan. T

 

his same point was offered by La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid. A US Marine from 1953 to 1956, Madrid said the issue of homosexuality was never discussed. "I am not gay, but I can tell you I could care less if I'm working or serving alongside a person who is gay if they do their job," said Madrid. "When I served in the Marines, the saying was simply 'there are no cowards in a foxhole and you always look after your friends.' Don't Ask, Don't Tell= is not in keeping with the spirit of the corps."

 

Former Casa de Oro resident and Cox Cable engineer Robert Phillips, who served in the Army National Guard during the early 1990s, said a person's sexuality should be a private, personal issue and should not be the basis of disallowing service in the military. "Open homosexuality, or heterosexuality for that matter, as far as "sex" is concerned does not belong in a work environment under any circumstances, so should not really be an open issue in the military. In a close-quarter environment like the military, you have a trust in the guy next to you that has nothing to do with who they choose to have sex with," said Phillips. "But in some situations (that) may weaken the trust. Most straight-possibly homophobic males may feel emasculated by serving next to another gay man because of that misguided opinion that any gay man wants to have sex with them simply because they are male. All that being said, I think that while the DADT policy may be offensive to some gay people, it is the best way to keep sexuality out of the entrance requirements. Though the policy needs to be reworked so that there is no penalty for being out, punishment, if rules are violated, should be equal for relations between gays soldiers as they are for straight soldiers," added Phillips.

 

Over the years a number of incidents have called into question the validity that the military is no longer seeking to remove gays from it's ranks. In 1996, Army Private Shannon Emery was attacked by fellow soldiers and almost raped. When she reported the incident to her superiors, her command looked into the matter, refused to prosecute the men who’d allegedly attacked her, then proceeded to investigate Emory’s own sexual history. In 1999, Private First-Class Barry Winchell was beaten to death while in his barracks at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Other soldiers who thought Winchell was gay ganged-up and attacked him with a baseball bat. During the investigation and trial, it was reported that Winchell had endured daily anti-gay harassment, which was largely ignored by his commanding officers.

 

In August 2000, Army private Ronald Chapman was severely beaten by other soldiers. Taking their lead from a scene from the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, the attackers snuck-up on Chapman during the middle of the night as he slept. Known as a "blanket party," the other soldiers repeatedly hit him with blankets stuffed with economy sized soap bars. His drill instructors and other members of his company had repeatedly harassed Chapman prior to the night of the "blanket party." "I got beat up last night. Someone came to my bed — a group of some ones — and they were hitting me with blankets and soap," said Chapman in a letter to his family. "I am aching all over my body. My whole body hurts ... I can’t believe this happened. Who did I hurt?"

 

Attitudes towards allowing gays to serve openly in the military have been increasing in the ensuing 15 years. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John M. Shalikashvili, said in a January 2007 op-ed piece for the New York Times that he believed gays serving openly in the military would not undermine the armed forces. "Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job. But if America is ready for a military policy of nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation, the timing of the change should be carefully considered," said Shalikashvili. "By taking a measured, prudent approach to change, political and military leaders can focus on solving the nation’s most pressing problems while remaining genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the ban."

 

With last year's election of Barack Obama, critics of DADT think the policy may soon end. Obama repeatedly said during the 2008 campaign that he would end the policy. "There's increasing recognition within the armed forces that this is a counterproductive strategy ... we're spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or lesbians out of our military, some of whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need. That doesn't make us more safe," said Obama in April 2008. President Obama called on a review of the policy last February and political analysts say he is trying to achieve a consensus on what the new policy should be - and avoid the same battles Bill Clinton faced 15 years ago.

 

Tauscher noted that both Colin Powell and Sam Nunn now advocated a repeal of the ban. "More importantly, recently polling has showed that more than seventy percent of the troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan support lifting the ban," said Tauscher.

 

Powell, a registered Republican who endorsed Obama during the election, told CNN in December his thinking on the issue had changed. "It's been 15 years and attitudes have changed and so I think it is time for the Congress, since it is their law, to have a full review of it, and I'm quite sure that's what President-elect Obama will want to do," said Powell.


Error message

Local news in the public interest is more important now than ever, during the COVID-19 crisis. Our reporters, as essential workers, are dedicated to keeping you informed, even though we’ve had to cancel fundraising events. Please give the gift of community journalism by donating at https://www.eastcountymedia.org/donate.