Interview: Gays and the United States military

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

It is almost eight years since the British government moved to allow openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people to serve in our Army, Navy and Air Force.

We were by no means the first. The Dutch lifted their ban in 1974, Australia followed in 1992, Canada soon after.

In 2008, most of the member nations of NATO have removed their bans, with one glaring exception. The United States continues to operate under the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” law, a messy compromise reached in 1994.

As a Presidential candidate, Bill Clinton had promised to allow gays to serve, but when he took office he was forced to accept the present policy in the face of military and Congressional opposition.

DADT states that commanders may not ask the sexual orientation of service members.

Gay men and lesbians can only continue to serve only if they do not engage in homosexual acts, and keep their sexual orientation a secret.

DADT continues to be an issue in the present Clinton run for the White House.

Senator Hillary Clinton and her main opponent Senator Barack Obama have both publicly called for DADT to be repealed by Congress.

None of the Republican candidates support repeal.

A December 2006 Zogby poll of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan found that 73 percent of soldiers reported being “comfortable in the presence of gays,” and only 37 percent oppose repealing the policy.

Many military officials, including General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton, now believe that gays should be allowed to serve openly.

Legislation to repeal this discriminatory policy was introduced last spring in the House of Representatives.

However, that will be of little comfort to the more than 11,000 troops have been dismissed under the policy.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly 800 of those dismissed had skills deemed ‘mission-critical’ by the Department of Defence, including more than 300 language specialists, of which 85 were proficient in Arabic.

The cost to U.S. taxpayers for maintaining DADT is estimated at more than $363 million (£182.6m).

During a recent visit to London Aaron Belkin, the director of the Michael D Palm Centre at the University of California and one of the world’s leading academics studying gays in the military spoke to about the ban. I was reading an article of yours where you referred to some of the sting operations the Navy undertook in 1919 whereby they sent seemingly heterosexual sailors into the YMCA to try and trap people.

That made me think there’s obviously been a change over time in what’s regarded as acceptable and unacceptable in the armed forces.

Aaron Belkin: I would say yes and no.

On the one hand, yes, in each different historical and cultural movement the way in which homosexuality is policed and marked and indicated is different, and sometimes the marker of homosexuality is just having the person say ‘I am gay.’

At other times it’s ‘do they walk in an effeminate way,’ at other times it has to do with how people dress, so yes the markers by which people are policed has changed.

That having been said, one fairly constant and sad aspect of American life is that for the past roughly 100 years both the identity of being gay and the practice of same-sex sex has been punished and criminalized and that has been a constant, so I would say there has been continuity and change. Were there times when it was easier for people to be gay in the military? Such as World War Two?

AB: Yes and no. There were times of relative permissiveness and times of relatively more intensified policing.

That having been said one of other stable aspect of the policies is that there have always been pockets of openly gay people in the US military.

Today when we have a law that explicitly prohibits having a gay identity, you can be fired just for carrying a gay identity, We have 65,000 gays and lesbians serving in the military, only about 1,000 are fired every year, actually 600 last year.

Which tells you 64,000 are not fired and we know from statistical polls that a huge percentage of those people who are not discharged are know by their peers to be gay. And so, is it safe for them?

No, but people have managed to carve out spaces in the military where they can be gay, that was always the case.

In the 1980s you actually had a gay disco on an American aircraft carrier, in World War Two there were many people who were known to be gay.

The way I like to think about this is it’s almost like a speeding ticket. Many times when you speed past a law enforcement officer you get a pass, but then sometimes you get fired, and in that sense you could say the administration of justice is capricious. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell sets up, as you say, the specific idea of being openly gay, so you’re not allowed to say that you are gay and they’re not allowed to ask.

If that is the case then how come there are 600 people a year that are being caught, is it as you say, as random as a speeding ticket or are there other factors.

AB: You have to divide the discharges into three different pools. About 15-20% of the discharges are people who are discovered to be gay, so someone turns them in, a commander reads through a diary, they’re inappropriately asked and the disclosure is basically compelled.

The other 80-85% have to be divided into two camps. One half of those, so roughly 40-45% are people who simply want to get out of the military, people who want a get out of jail card, so they say ‘I’m gay’ so they can go. Are they all homosexual?

AB: It’s unknowable because we can’t poll these people but I would say anecdotally some straight people do use the policy to get out. Rare but it happens.

The other half of the so-called statement cases or tell discharges, so the other half of the 80-85% who are fired because they say they are gay.

It’s true they are statement cases, so they acknowledge to their commander that they are gay, but it’s not voluntary, it’s people who are facing harassment in their units, don’t have any other means of protecting themselves.

They don’t want to lose their military career but feel that disclosure is the only way to protect themselves. I’ve been looking at recent polling and was quite surprised to see how strong the support is within the military for a change in DADT, both from commanders and chiefs of staff and guys who are serving. Is it a big issue within the military there?

AB: Politically the pressure is towards repeal, between 58-79% of the public, even a majority of Republicans favour repeal.

In the military there has been a sea-change of attitudes, I wouldn’t say that there’s pressure from the military to change, what I would say is that the number of people in the military who strongly oppose change is now tiny.

The number of people who either are indifferent to change or prefer change is large, and the willingness of people who prefer change to speak out publicly, that’s been the most visible difference.

So now it’s not people saying in the hallways, yeah gays should serve, but it’s people willing to stick their neck out. This is a Congressional decision, is that right? Will the new President have any effect in that sense?

AB: Well, if a President decided to put political capital into the repeal effort they could pressure Congress to introduce legislation and pass that legislation.

It’s possible that the initiative could come exclusively from Congress without any Presidential pull or push, though it would be greatly facilitated if it was a combined legislative executive initiative. Are you confident that might be something we’ll see in 2009/2010?

AB: If the Republicans win, you probably won’t see any change, even though a majority of Republicans favour repeal.

The Republican Presidential candidates are all against repeal because they are playing to the most extreme base within the party. So a Republican president almost certainly would do nothing.

All the Democratic contenders for the White House have said that they favour repeal but it’s yet to be seen if that will actually translate into real effort should one get elected. It’s very possible that this could be written off as campaign rhetoric. My understanding is that in 1992 President Clinton invested a lot political capital and ended up with scars on his back over this.

AB: Clinton said he would push for repeal and he actually tried hard, he really did follow through on his promise. He was a little bit naive about the political process but it wasn’t for lack of effort, he really did sink a lot of political capital into repeal. It’s possible that a Democrat would come into office and not even try. What was the military thinking behind DADT?

AB: I think what happened is that the White House put so much political capital into repeal when President Clinton took office in 1993 that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congressional opponents realised the White House would have to be given some tiny sort of face-saving bone.

So DADT in effect is a continuation of the old ban but it sounds a little bit more progressive than the old policy and therefore the White House could, I suppose with some measure of justification, say ‘well they didn’t get everything they want but at least they got half a loaf.’

In fact I would say they got one slice out of a very large loaf. To a lot of people DADT seems like the worst of both worlds, no one likes it, it doesn’t serve either compromise. What was it like before DADT? Could it be argued that it was easier for people before this policy came along?

AB: There have been improvements and there have been setbacks. More people have been discharged – the annual rate of discharge under DADT has been higher than it was previously to DADT.

So the old ban was articulated in regulation, which means military regulations, the new ban, DADT, is a law. So, under the regulations there were still a lot of discharges but there were fewer, so that’s a bad thing that’s happened.

A good thing that’s happened is that the witch hunts have stopped,. Under the old system the enforcement of the ban was much more violent than it is today. It was terribly violent. What are we talking about?

AB: You lock someone in a closet without legal representation for 24 hours, you haul them before a pair of military investigators who are playing good cop bad cop, one of whom is asking them gently to name other names in the unit, the other of whom is threatening them that if they don’t they’ll be court marshalled, etc.

There are cases of people who were raped by prison guards while they were being held in jail, under the old regulations.

The military was not a safe place for gays and lesbians before DADT and by making the situation more public, by shining a spotlight on it, even though the discharge numbers are up, some of the worst abuses are basically a thing of the past. Is there legal redresses for people who have been kicked out under DADT?

AB: No, there are almost no legal protections and in fact it’s interesting, DADT ostensibly protects service members from being asked whether they’re gay but that legal arrangement is often honoured in the breach so you have literally thousands of examples of commanders saying ‘I won’t ask you if you’re gay but if I did what would you say?’

In fact, you don’t have a right not to be asked so you cannot pursue any procedural justice if the Pentagon violates its own rules. How long have you been studying this are?

AB: About a decade. What spurred you to turn your academic study towards this?

AB: I had studied the military for 20 years, I’ve always been fascinated by the Armed Forces. Originally when I was 18 years old I started studying the military because I wanted to know what would convince someone to join an organisation that was organised around violence.

To be frank, no one in my immediate family had served and so I just had no sense of understanding of what would motivate a person to become part of a military organisation

And I never stopped studying the military. About half way through my studies at graduate school I came out of the closet and realised there was a very powerful overlap between my military interests and my gay lesbian interests, and I was up and running. In the best case scenario, we get a Democrat and they do want to invest political capital, will you be looking at the UK as a model for how this could be achieved?

AB: The UK is by far and away the most respected military in the world when it comes to the mindset of the Pentagon.

In fact, when we last had this debate in 1992/93 one of the reasons that people gave why the US couldn’t lift its ban was that Britain had a ban at that time.

I know in personal conversations with very respected military leaders that they see British experiences as precedent setting and that the incredible progress over here, has already changed a lot of their minds.

The question is not just about seeing the precedent and changing minds but figuring out how to lift the ban, once the political trigger is pulled.

So once that moment arrives the British experiences will need to be studied in greater depth, to get a road map. We’ve already established the vast majority of officers in the US think this ban should be got rid of. They’re already serving alongside UK units that are integrated in that sense.

AB: Well I wouldn’t say the vast majority of American enlisted service members want the ban to be lifted but I would say the majority are either indifferent or they want the ban to be lifted. It must be something that’s being looked at top levels at the Pentagon and thought about?

AB: Not in an official way actually because they’re waiting for Congress to send a signal, but of course people talk about this all the time and they’re very sensitive to the press they get. Also, as I said, American units are serving alongside their British counterparts, and from other European nations.

AB: Yeah, and people are acutely aware of that and all of that is precedent setting. Of course the UK was not the first country to do it.

AB: No, the Dutch were the first country to lift their ban in 1974, if I’m not mistaken. There have been 24 countries so far around the world. … the Israelis, Canadians and Australians moved in the early 1990s so it’s been basically the rate of about one per year in the last 30 years. That makes the US, within NATO for example, in a minority this regard.

AB: Yes, we’re the last major, industrialised Western nation which discriminates and goes out of its way to fire people just for being gay.