Monday, October 08, 2012

Why the military gay ban (even as repealed) matters to me (even as a retired civilian)


With the possibility of the unraveling of the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” apparently on the horizon of the Republicans broom their way into office in November, I wanted to go back and review why this issue (gays in the military) was of such existential importance to me.

My own story starts with my expulsion from the College of William and Mary in November 1961 after confiding to the Den of Men that I was gay when prodded and called in over Thanksgiving weekend. At the time, the “privacy” and “well being” of other young men in the dorm was a “concern”. 

I would, given the values of the times, fight to regain my “reputation”, taking the draft physical three times, going from 4-F to 1-A and “volunteering” for the draft in early 1968, after graduate school.  I would be somewhat sheltered by my degree and specialized MOS (“01E20”) and avoid the sacrifice in Vietnam that others made.  But I would serve without incident (essentially).

I would spend three weeks of my Basic Training period at Fort Jackson, SC in “Special Training Company”, or “Tent City” in the early spring of 1968.  Young men who whose performance in PT was below substandard were considered moral pariahs and possible cowards or malingerers in those days. Yet, there was no focus on homosexuality.  Some of these men were “gay”, but by no means all or even most of them.
In the early years of my civilian work life, the ability to get a top secret security clearance would become an issue, given my “psychiatric” history.

I think the reader can tell where I am going with this.  I grew up in a world where young men were presumed to have a pre-existing obligation to protect women and children collectively, even before attempting to have families of their own.  In many parts of the world today, it’s still that way. (Look at radical Islam.)

Throughout most of the 70s and 80s, my main concern was the right to live my own “private” life, apart from work, apart from interference by others. That’s the way it was then.  In the 1980s, the biggest political (and practical) threat came from AIDS.  In the meantime, Nixon had ended the draft in 1973 (after the row over student deferments and then the lottery), shortly after “peace” in Vietnam. (Nixon got some things right and sometimes could sound like a “liberal”.)  The military did not seem as important as a part of American life.  But the draft might have come back after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and in 1981, just as Reagan took office, the Pentagon implemented a service-wide policy absolutely banning gays from the all-volunteer military (“with asking”).  This was the policy summarized in the notorious 123 words, beginning with “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.”  It sounded like a litany, or homily.  In those days, getting the administration to at least grant civilian gays higher level security clearances was a big goal, because of the circular reasoning involved. In a few cases, though, gay officers resigned commissions and continued doing critical intelligence work not in uniform.

In May 1992, Petty Officer Keith Meinhold announced his homosexuality on national television, resulting in discharge, and then a legal fight that he personally eventually won, over the old policy. I heard abput the broadcast shortly thereafter. In September 1992, former midshipman Joseph Steffan’s book “Honor Bound” about his expulsion from the Naval Academy just before graduation (almost #1) in his class (and after a summer of “intimacy” on submarine, which he says was spent with playing a lot of chess) appeared, and I went to his book signing at the Lambda Rising in Washington and met him.  This was about the time of a vitriolic Anita-Bryant-style referendum in Oregon. At the same time, incumbent president George H. W. Bush, despite his victory in the Persian Gulf War (which had already exposed the problems with the military ban) was losing traction against upstart Bill Clinton, who was making “promises” to end the ban if elected.  I read Steffan’s book in one night (Books blog Oct. 10, 2007) and was quite moved by it. 

After Clinton was inaugurated, I followed the 1993 “debate” initiated by Sam Nunn and Charles Moskos in great detail.  I thought that there was a parallel between the arguments they made and the reasons for my WM expulsion in 1961 (and subsequent  inpatient “reparative” psychiatric treatment at NIH in the latter part of 1962, right during the Cuban Missile Crisis). Shortly after the overwhelming March in Washington in late April 1993,  I had some meetings with the rather progressive pastor at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC at 16th and O Sts NW, near the White House, which Bill Clinton sometimes attended.  We worked out a “white house letter” to propose a compromise on the ban, which he says was “delivered up” to the White House around June 20, 1993.  The one point that the letter stressed was that comments about male sexual attractiveness (well known in the male community) could not be tolerated well in a military environment.

When Bill Clinton announced his “honorable compromise” on July 19, 1993 at Fort McNair, a lot of “us” thought that it was the best deal possible (with a touch of “Argo” logic, perhaps).  Barney Frank had suggested something similar, proposing a policy distinguishing between off-base and on-base or during-deployment behavior.  However, for good legal and perhaps practical reasons, this is a difficult distinction to make, because of the very definition of military active duty status.  Even Bill Clinton said that the rules had to apply “at all times and all places”.   Some activists (including a friend who lead a lot of Adventuring hikes) said “Barney Frank stabbed us in the back.”  On the other hand, I got into a discussion with a military officer one time at Koons Ford when picking up a car, “Oh, I think we should ask. We can ‘t have a second rate military like the Europeans.” I don’t think he knew what Israel was doing.

The Pentagon, in fact, tried to draw this line with its administrative rules that it published in early 1994.  By the summer of 1994, it was apparent that many commands have violated them and sometimes were conducting more witch-hunts than they had during the pre-Clinton days when in many cases (like Keith Meinhold) some gays had been “semi-open” (to borrow a term from chess theory) in the military for years with brass looking the other way, because nothing had to be politicized.

It was in August of 1994, on vacation in Colorado, that I decided to “tell my story” and write my “Do Ask Do Tell” book.  I remember walking out of a family restaurant, having read an obscure story about another witch-hunt in a local paper, in Sterling, CO knowing that I had decided to write the book.  That changed my outlook for myself and my life.  I had been in some kind of obsessive funk for sometime (abut work) before the political and moral issues around the ban woke me up.

We’re in a different world now than then, with a younger generation that attaches much more importance to equality and to governments and public institutions “telling the truth” and shooting square with citizens.  Culture has changed. The double life that was possible in the 90s no longer works.  The Internet is one reason for that.  Indeed, Facebook requires everyone to use their true legal name and identity. 

In fact, the “double life” problem played out in another way in the 90s.  As I worked on my book, I was employed by a life insurance company that specialized in selling to military officers.  I felt that I could be in a conflict of interest, and, even though there was not direct reason for sexual orientation to come up where I worked, I was uncomfortable staying there indefinitely. One time, I was approached about a company blood drive.  That was embarrassing because of the ban on gay male donors, even though I am HIV-.  But the company got bought in a takeover, and this time the merger worked well for me, as I transferred to the acquiring company in Minneapolis at the time (1997) my book came out. The timing was perfect.

There would occur another wrinkle, as my mother need coronary bypass surgery in 1999, at age 85, which seemed unheard of at the time.  I was concerned for a time that she would not get the operation unless I transferred back, creating a moral dilemma requiring “sacrifice”.  That did not happen, fortunately, but it could have.

The military gay ban was important then because the military has a lot to do with defining common obligations, sometimes calling for “reciprocal” sacrifice, from all citizens.  If someone cannot serve in the military for “moral” reasons, he or she could be kept out of other opportunities, too.  So that was with security clearances, although President Clinton issued an executive order protecting gays in security clearance matters in 1995.  Another big issue that SLDN (Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network) often assisted discharged servicemembers with was Pentagon recoupments of ROTC scholarships or sometime service academy “tuition”.  Still another issue was the Solomon Amendment and denial of funds to universities which banned military recruiters because of discriminatory policies.

After the 9/11 attacks, there was sporadic talk of renewing the draft (probably to include women), and even Charles Moskos supported this, telling me in a personal email in late 2001 that the military ban would go away with a draft.  In fact, during the Iraq war, the Pentagon practiced a “stop-loss” policy, with repeated deployments of guardsmen and reservists, almost a “backdoor” draft, of some people.

Concerns about “privacy” in “barracks” environments had been expressed in comparable civilian situations for years.  In the 1970s, the New York City Firefighters union opposed anti-discrimination laws because gays would be sleeping in their firehouses (ironically, NYGAA met in a building on Wooster street called “The Firehouse”).  Reasoning that had justified the military ban could be used by police and fire departments, Boy Scouts (it still is, as of this writing), and possibly other overseas service programs, although the Peace Corps has been able to deal with this.  Yet, at the 2012 HRC National Dinner, a video of Maine Firefighters supporting gay marriage was shown.

I think the concern was not so much about privacy in the sense of physical modesty as it is in a broader sense, of having individuals in your midst who don’t share your deepest motives (like procreation) but who may seem to be setting themselves up in a position to “judge” your worthiness (based on attractiveness).  It’s comparable to allowing vocal kibitzers at a chess tournament.  The whole idea of “unit cohesion” in the military may revolve more around this observation, but it can spill over into other civilian areas, as shown in the 2011 HBO Documentary film, “The Strange History of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’”.

Today, SLDN is fighting mainly for the rights of gay military families, and there are many specific issues that conservatives still resist.  But we could easily backslide into the days of DADT or even “asking” if the GOP sweeps in November. 

The military ban (and the issues for military families today) affects a relatively small percentage of Americans directly. Likewise, denial of equal gay marriage rights probably affects relatively few people as a percentage of the electorate.  But the implications of these issues, indirectly, can affect all of us.  I can recall an attorney at Covington and Burling, which worked with SLDN on many cases, saying this one time.  Like it or not, we all have to deal with sharing risks with others and service to others.  Eldercare is the latest wrinkle that affects many LGBT people big time (as caregivers first).  So “unit cohesion” becomes “social cohesion” and takes on a whole bigger meaning.

Above: More of Corey Booker's speech from the HRC 2012 National Dinner. 

No comments: