(As of yesterday, I am now a contributor to the excellent blog The Gay-Atheist. The founder, Alex, assures me the fact that I am neither gay nor an atheist [though give me a couple of days on that second one] will not be held against me. Anyway, here is my first lengthy contribution, published at The Gay-Atheist a few minutes ago.)
On Tuesday a military commission in Syracuse, New York recommended the discharge of Lt. Dan Choi from the New York Army National Guard. Choi is a 2003 graduate of West Point, a combat veteran who commanded troops in the present conflict in Iraq, and a translator fluent in Arabic. This spring the Army notified Lt. Choi that he was being discharged for violating the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which allows gay men and women to serve their country as long as they keep their sexuality a secret. Lt. Choi publicly admitted his homosexuality on The Rachel Maddow Show.
“It’s an immoral code that goes against every single thing we were ever taught at West Point with our honor code,” Choi has said about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He points out precisely what makes the policy so twisted: not merely that it is plainly discriminatory (straight men and women in the armed forces face no discipline of any kind for making their sexual orientations known), but that it requires gay Americans to lie, or at the very least maintain a conspicuous silence, about their personal lives.
Still, no matter how disappointing it is to see the military dismiss from its ranks as capable and dedicated a soldier as Dan Choi, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The military’s ban on the openly gay is well known and unambiguous, and Lt. Choi clearly violated it. Under the law, there was no other decision the commission which assembled on Tuesday to hear Choi’s challenge could have made. Change was never going to begin there. To end the bigoted and nonsensical ban on openly gay servicemen and –women, we must change the policy itself. And to change that policy, we must change the law.
We have a better shot at changing the law and ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the next few years than we have since the policy was instituted during the early days of the Clinton administration. Since the unfortunate passing this past November of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, there have been many encouraging signs. The legislatures of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine all legalized same-sex marriage — Vermont’s over the veto of its governor. In April the Council of the District of Columbia voted to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, opening the door for eventual full legalization. A few days before that, thanks to a ruling of the state supreme court, same-sex marriage was legalized in Iowa, of all places. (And it has little legal relevance for us, but hey — did I read that they just decriminalized homosexuality in India? I did!) Never in my lifetime has the iron been this hot. The time for long overdue legal reform is now. But before soldiers like Dan Choi can freely and openly wear the uniform of our country in the armed forces, more than the law must be changed.
Last week I had an interesting exchange with Rick Rottman of Bent Corner, a fellow resident of the Hagerstown, MD area, and for my money one of the best bloggers anywhere. Rick, a veteran of the United States Air Force, told me in a comment on something I’d written that, prior to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the faintest rumor of a soldier’s homosexuality would be investigated to the ends of the Earth, even to the point of tracking down friends, family and co-workers for questioning. A few days later an anonymous commenter on the same article wrote, “a change in law does not equal a change in culture.”
I was never in the military, but judging by conversations I’ve had over the years with others who have served, I imagine Rick and my anonymous commenter paint a pretty accurate picture. The U.S. military has been an overtly homophobic organization for the entirety of its history. No other legal behavior will get you kicked out of the Army faster than being openly gay. The official justification for banning homosexuality has always been that it would be damaging to discipline and “unit cohesion,” yet since 1993 a total of over 13,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and Coast Guard personnel have been discharged for violating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Am I missing something? Are so many needless dismissals from the ranks not detrimental to discipline and cohesion?
The military’s refusal to allow openly gay members is based on an archaic view of homosexuality, warped by bigotry and based in hysteria rather than rationality. Gay men are still thought to be cowardly and physically weak, and both gay men and lesbians are presumed to be sexual predators with no self control, liable to attempt to seduce any member of their own sex. Ironically, it’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” itself that has exploded these old prejudices; thanks to the present policy, we know there are gays serving ably and honorably (albeit secretly) in our armed forces, proving they are just as capable of maintaining the physical and mental discipline so prized by the military. Hell, I could even argue that they’ve demonstrated superior discipline, since I imagine keeping one’s sexual orientation a secret from one’s comrades and commanders to be no easy feat.
Reforming the bigoted culture of the military may be challenging, and might take awhile, but there’s no other choice. The same arguments advanced for barring gays from the military were used sixty years ago to justify racial segregation in the ranks. They were faulty then, and they’re faulty now. And who knows? Maybe rehabilitating that military culture won’t be as hard as we think. Lt. Choi seems relatively optimistic. “My subordinates know I’m gay,” he told Rachel Maddow. “They don't care. They are professional.”
Easy or difficult, this is a change that has to be made — not just for a gay American like Dan Choi, who loves the Army and wants nothing more than to continue his exemplary career, but for all of us. Free societies must not relegate whole categories of innocent human beings to second-class citizenship, and cannot allow bigotry to be inscribed in their laws or practiced in their institutions. Until we guarantee to our gay fellow Americans the same rights and privileges afforded heterosexuals, our big talk about being a just and freedom-loving nation drawing strength from our diversity will remain nothing more than a lot of hollow chest-thumping.