First of all, a big thanks to Tom Joaquin, guest contributor, for his excellent post on General Pace’s disgraceful comments. Such moments of bigotry and immorality on the part of public figures need to be pointed out. There is often too little public outrage about such important issues.
I want to add some of my own thoughts to Tom’s. And I’d preface them the way Tom ended his: I don’t support the war in Iraq. I don’t support war as a solution to international conflict in general. I do, though, believe that the institutions of this society need to be arranged according to principles of equality and social justice. If we are to have a military, it must be on that does not depend on bigotry and hatred and discrimination. All must have an equal chance to serve.
It often surprises me that, given our society’s blatant and persistent discrimination against gays and lesbians, that they want to serve in the military in the first place. But it is naive of me to wonder about that. Gays and lesbians, despite being targets of discrimination, despite increasing antagonism toward them, are just as likely to feel called to defend their country as anyone else is. In addition, the military has become, for many poorer and working class young people, a route to college in a society that makes higher education increasingly unaffordable. For those reasons, it is extremely important to change the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that currently forces them into the closet and reinforces homophobia, heterosexism, and hatred.
The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is hateful in a number of ways.
First, it says “sure, you can serve, and you can offer your life, but only if you hide who you are.” This is a policy that contributes to homophobia and heterosexism while still accepting the sacrifices made by gays and lesbians. It’s like saying “come, serve in a system that hates you and will not acknowledge you, but will happily take your life.”
Second, it says “discrimination against gays is okay, while discrimination against other groups is not.” The military has been one of the best institutions at providing equal opportunity regardless of race or ethnicity. We went from a segregated military to an integrated one relatively quickly, and now the military – and I don’t say this enthusiastically by any means – is one of the most reliable (and dangerous) ways for young men and women of color to get training, get access to college, and to move up the economic ladder. Racism is no longer systematically tolerated in the military. But gay and lesbian soldiers are subjected to institutional closeting and to individual harassment and abuse because of a system that is based on homophobia and heterosexism. (It is interesting, and probably connected to this, that the military has done a better job at integrating racially and ethnically than it has done at integrating genders. While women are technically allowed to do nearly all the same jobs that men in the military can do, they are quite often targets of individual violence and harassment. That connection is perhaps best explored in another post.)
Third, it says “we’re so invested in our homophobia and heterosexism that we’ll put our military at risk in order to reinforce our biases.” I remember my shock when I read a story back in 2002 about linguists being dismissed from the Army because they were gay. This was at a time when, as a nation, we were focused on the problems our Military Intelligence units were facing because of their lack of linguists fluent in the languages of “the war on terror.” Recent articles describing the shortages in mid-level officers, and the difficulties that the branches of the military are having in recruiting enough soldiers to fight our misguided wars also point to the risk that the military puts itself in when it excludes groups who want to serve. It is shocking to think that we are willing to put our national defense, and our soldiers’ lives at risk in order to maintain our systematic discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Fourth, it insults our allies, who nearly universally allow gays and lesbians to serve without question. It would seem to be evidence of a lack of confidence in their militaries when we say that we think our own military would be weakened if we did what they’ve been doing for many years.
There are those who would say that “as a country we’re just not ready yet” for gays in the military. They might even say that to allow gays to serve would be to create conflict among troops who need instead to have great trust in each other. They might try to argue that it is wrong to “force” people to accept gays and lesbians because some religious traditions say that homosexuality is a sin. To those people I would say this: Religion has been used to justify horrors in the past, and we have learned from those incidents. Mainstream Christians wouldn’t think of using the Bible to justify slavery today even though that might have been a common strategy not so long ago. We were not ready for racial integration when Brown v. Board of education was decided but we got ready in a hurry, at least in some institutions. We still aren’t an integrated society, but we’ve made some progress, and the military in particular has done better than most sectors of society. They can do the same in this case. We should not cater to individuals’ discomfort, bias, or hatred in our social policies. We should create policies that work at undermining those biases, not policies that support them.
I echo Tom’s call to write to your representatives in the House and Senate, and to write to local papers (click here for some advice if you need help getting started), and to write to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Pace, himself.
Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chairman
9999 Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon
Washington, DC 20318
Fax: (703) 697-8758
Feel free to use any part of this post, non-commercially and with attribution, in your efforts.