Gays in the Military

by Jonathan Wallace

President Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was an extremely weak and dishonest solution to a civil rights problem. Now it has backfired; recent reports indicate that more gay people are being expelled from the military than before the policy.

Being fit for the military is a binary switch: there is not really anything in the world which makes you unfit for military service, or anything else, only if it is known. (Knowing what we know now about President Clinton, it is not surprising that he came up with a policy based on the philosophy that a flaw is not one unless its known.) Thus, if being homosexual affects your fitness for service, it does so whether public or private.

Obviously, being gay does not make a human being physically less strong, or with worse reflexes, or unable to fire a gun. Instead, the sole rationalization offered for not wanting gays in the military is that it will undermine morale, people won't feel at ease around them, won't fight to defend them, etc. This is hogwash--it is the toleration of a prejudice that is in fact intolerable and should be rooted out, the way similar prejudices were against blacks in the military. If people announced--as they would, if given the chance--that they didn't feel comfortable bunking with a Democrat, a socialist, a fundamentalist Christian, an evolutionist or creationist, would we institute a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for these statuses too?

The Christian right and their political fellow travellers respond to comparisons of prejudice against gays to bias against black people by trumpeting that homosexuality is a choice. Liberals who respond that it isn't are allowing the fundies to define the terms of the debate and are going down irrelevant pathways. Personally, I believe that homosexuality may be a choice for some people, and not for others. So what? It just doesn't matter. If its a choice, its like the decision to be a Democrat or a creationist--one that doesn't hurt anyone and should have absolutely no impact on serving in the military.

Much of the strongly held prejudice against gay people arises among people who have never known any, and, like racism against blacks, is based on a set of stereotypes about behavior. The truth of the matter is that we can organize our social and public spheres appropriately with one set of rules that applies to all sexual behavior, hetero or gay. We don't appreciate heterosexual couples having sex in public. We don't want officers engaging in sexual fraternization with troops. Fine. The majority of the gay people I know are more discreet about public behavior than most heterosexuals. We could reach a point where gay couples could hold hands and exchange an occasional kiss in public without witnessing the fall of Western civilization.

Military spokesmen have claimed that the increased rate of discharges of gay people have resulted from people using their homosexuality as an excuse to get out of the military. This smacks of classic "blame the victim." Even if it had any truth to it, why create a category of citizens who can leave the military on demand, when their peers cannot? This is not the euqality we have a right to expect in our institutions.

The "Don't Ask, don't Tell" policy has been a miserable failure. It should be replaced immediately with a "Don't Tolerate Intolerance" policy. The military, under Truman, cleaned up its act once before, where black people were concerned, and did so very successfully. Its time to do the same for gay people.