Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=139239
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 8:50:54 AM CST
WASHINGTON -- Homosexuality in the military is not new to this decade, but how the military responds to it may be.
‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ became the policy under President Bill Clinton and was heralded as a milestone at the time. With a new administration and new century, however, many believe the military policy on sexual orientation needs a modern day facelift.
“The public has integrated gays into their minds years ago,” said Denny Meyer, the 62-year-old president and founder of the New York chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights. Beyond cultural acceptance, Meyer points out a practical reason he believes change is necessary: “When the bullets are flying, no one is thinking about sex.”
Meyer joined the Navy in 1968—decades before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ went into effect -- because he saw it as a way to thank the country for allowing his parents – World War II refugees – to become citizens.
At the time, Meyer, who was openly gay while a university undergrad, was forced to lie on his application. This was a point in the military’s history where it wasn’t enough to not tell people you were gay – you had to affirm, on your application that you were straight. Not only did Meyer know this was a violation, he knew that, legal implications aside, were his peers to learn he was gay, he would, as he put it, “be killed.”
Life before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and life after ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was similar for men in the military. Still gay, and still forced to hide his sexuality, the enforced silence required Meyer hide his sexual orientation on and off the job: This meant his personal life and private life were now one.
And so for the 10 years that Meyer served in the armed forces, he did it as a closeted gay man. The burden of secrecy in Meyer’s professional life spilled over into his private life. He grew tired of constantly being on watch, always looking over his shoulder when accompanied by his partner, worried that someone from the military would see the couple and effectively end his career.
So Meyer, who achieved the rank of Sgt. First Class in the Army and Petty Officer Second Class in the Navy left so he could live as an openly gay man.
The creation of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” eliminated the box on the application. It did not change the consequences. If officers find out about gay soldiers, under the policy, the requirement to kick them out still remains.
Meyer believes that restriction has contributed greatly to the military’s ability to retain gay soldiers. “The fact is 3,500 to 4,500 people leave by not reenlisting every year because they are tired of serving under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’.”
The number of soldiers who choose not to reenlist is the size of an average military brigade. “To replace one of those people is almost incalculable,” Meyer said. “It takes a decade and $100,000 to do so.”
‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ has had some success, though. Although 12,762 troops have been kicked out of the military since January 1994, that number represents a significant drop --- 34 percent fewer soldiers have been discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to data from the Congressional Research Service.
But to Meyer, the policy is “like telling people you can serve in the military as long as you don’t tell anyone you are Jewish or Catholic or black.”
In Chairman Michael Mullen’s Aug. 14 Joint Chief of Staff podcast he seemed to point the way ahead for a revision in the policy: “President [Barack] Obama has made his strategic intent clear, he wants to see this law changed.”
Cynthia Smith, Defense Department spokeswoman, affirmed that the president is in favor of repealing the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy.
“He is committed to doing it in a way that is least disruptive to our troops, especially given that they have been simultaneously waging two wars for six years now,” Smith said.
According to a December 2006 Zogby International poll, 73 percent of military personnel said that they were comfortable interacting with gay people. The overwhelming majority of respondents, 66 percent, also stated that the presence of gays or lesbians had little or no impact on them as a person and 64 percent feel it has little to no impact on them as a unit.
“It’s a generational thing, mainly people in their 20s and 30s don’t care about gay anything,” said Kevin Nix, communications director for the Service Members Legal Defense Network.
“A shift in cultural values has occurred, where many younger individuals no longer judge people by their sexual preferences,” he said.
But General Colin Powell, who helped craft the policy in 1993, said the issues run much deeper than a generational divide.
“It is not just a matter of old generals who, you know, are just too high-bound. There are lots of complicated issues with respect to this, and I think all of those issues should be illuminated,” he said.
Powell said on CNN's State of the Union in June that the policy should be reviewed, but would not say it should be repealed.
“I think it was correct for the time. Sixteen years have now gone by, and I think a lot has changed with respect to attitudes within our country. And therefore, I think this is a policy and a law that should be reviewed," he said.
In Nathaniel Fick’s book “One Bullet Away,” Fick speaks of his service in the Marines with his deployment after Sept. 11, 2001, after ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was passed.
The following was part of his welcome to Quantico, the Marine training ground:
“Dump your trash. I want to see who’s trying to sneak naked pictures of his boyfriend into my squad bay.” Sergeant Instructor said to Fick and his troops, as they were forced to empty their bags.
While discrimination remains in place, it is the goal of those revising ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ to relinquish the hot-button issue of homosexuality.
Former sailor Meyer said reform is necessary because ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ is doing more than thinning numbers. It’s hurting morale.
“When a commander has no choice but to follow command and discharge a soldier for being gay… the only happy person is the one loser in the unit who is a bigot,” Meyer said.
Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has made it her personal mission to repeal the policy. In an interview in August with the Web site Gay Military Signal, Gillibrand explained how a meeting with Army Lt. Dan Choi, an Arabic speaker dismissed for being gay, helped frame her outlook on the policy.
“The meeting we had was very inspiring to me because he described how military policy is that you are told never to lie,” she said. “But, in fact, he is asked to lie every day about who he is. I thought that was particularly compelling and really put an emphasis on how distorted this policy truly is; and how destructive it is
Gillibrand promised to change the policy and has arranged the first hearing on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in 16 years, which will be held by the Senate Armed Services Committee this fall.
The hearing aims to amend ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and replace it with a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“Back in 1993 it was a so-called compromise that Clinton came up with, but you know at the end of the day it was discriminatory then and its discriminatory now,” Nix said.
While a more inclusive policy may be up for discussion this fall, Nix said that there will be some resistance along the way because of differences in perception and a generational divide.
“One obstacle is that there is a perception problem among some in the Beltway that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is a hot button political issue like it was in 1993 but it’s not,” Nix said. “So there are some folks in the White House and in Congress who say they don’t want to touch this.”