In the military, being gay can mean losing a career.
The US military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has banned openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from serving in the armed forces since 1993. While it’s easy to discuss “don’t ask, don’t tell” just on the policy level, it also has a real impact on individual
Patrick English was seventeen when he enlisted in the Army.
“I thought my sexuality was just a phase, it was something I would grow out of, or the military would straighten me out,” he said. English is a recent transfer to Western and biochem major.
English, an Army linguist and combat veteran of the Iraq War,
was in the Army from 2000 to 2005. He first came out to some of his peers about four months after he finished basic training.
“I had to weigh the consequences,” said English. “Ultimately, I decided that my relationships with my peers were more important. I trusted these people with my life, so I had to not keep things from them.”
“I found out that they were really accepting for the most part. I found that there was a whole network of LGBT service-members and straight allies that were there on the base.”
Rear Admiral Alan Steinman, former US Coast Guard Surgeon General, was silent about his own sexual orientation during his twenty five years of service.
“Nobody knew I was gay, although I knew I was,” he said. “I was celibate the whole time I was in the military, which is a tragedy.”
Steinman, who retired from the Coast Guard in 1997, will speak at Western this Wednesday about the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, at 7 p.m. in Humanities 110.
For most people, according to Steinman, it isn’t possible to live in secrecy as he did because being a homosexual or bisexual person in the military is more complicated than simply not talking about their sexual orientation.
“Gay and lesbian and bisexual members do make a tremendous sacrifice to serve their country because they cannot be honest about who they are,” he said. “They have to follow all of the regulations and hardships of being on active duty, but they’ve got this extra burden of trying to protect their identity.”
“Why should you have to live in fear that your paycheck, your job, your security could be terminated with no recourse if somebody finds out about you?”
In 1993, Congress passed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and it became a part of military law. The law was a compromise between President Clinton, who promised to lift the ban on gay and lesbian people serving in the military during his campaign, and conservative members of congress who threatened to veto Clinton if he made an executive order to allow gay people to serve.
With “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” for the first time, lesbian and gay individuals were legally allowed to serve in the military. The condition was that they remained what Steinman calls “silent and celibate.” Prior to 1993, gay and lesbian service-members risked dishonorable discharge.
Officially, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is not based on moral or religious beliefs.
“The official reasoning was: if you allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, it will be bad for morale,” said Steinman. “It will undermine unit cohesion, and therefore negatively impact on combat readiness.”
“The compromise was gays and lesbians could serve as long as nobody knew they were there,” he said. “Then you don’t have to worry about morale, cohesion, and combat readiness.”
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” forced homosexual and bisexual service-members to contradict the core values of the armed forces. Although such values vary between branches of the service, all require honesty to be upheld. According to Steinman, this is a contradiction because it requires service-members to lie about their identity. Service-members in a same-gender relationship can’t talk about their partners without changing pronouns, can’t display photographs, and can’t have their partners greet them in public when they return from deployment.
“Basically, homosexuals and bisexuals who are patriotic and want to serve their country are forced to live a lie and violate these core values in order to do their service,” said Steinman.
Steinman has found that the cultural attitude towards gay, lesbian, and bisexual people has changed since 1993. Many young people came from high schools with gay-straight alliances, and even if they didn’t know anyone who was out, lesbian and gay characters are now more common on TV.
“It’s not a big issue to the 18 to 29 year old age group, which is 80% of the military,” he said.
Steinman said that it’s up to military leadership to deal with discrimination.
“It’s not okay to be sexist, it’s not okay to be racist. Why is it okay to be a homophobe then?”
Much of the opposition comes from stereotypes, which also come in part from media portrayal of homosexual people.
“For most straight guys, when they hear openly gay, they think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, they think Jack on Will and Grace,” said Steinman. “They’re thinking pride parade.”
“They’re thinking outrageous hyper effeminate behavior, that’s the image that comes to their mind and they don’t see that in the military.”
Steinman said that there are effeminate men in the military, but not all of them are gay. “And it’s okay to be effeminate. What the military should be judging people on is their job performance and behavior, not their stereotyped image.”
“The reality is that gays and lesbians in the military are pretty much indistinguishable from their heterosexual counterparts. You can’t ‘tell’ who is a gay person by looking at them.”
Steinman gave a number of examples of service-members, including Patrick English, he personally knows who are out, despite “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, to their units and officers.
He estimates there are between 65,000 and 125,000 lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in the military who are on active duty. According to the Department of Defense, there are currently over that 1,400,000 people serving on active duty.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that the peers of gays and lesbians and bisexuals oftentimes know about them and don’t care,” Steinman said. “It’s not an issue. It’s not creating morale problems, it’s not creating unit cohesion problems, it’s not creating combat readiness problems. Sometimes even the commanding officers know and choose to look the other way.”
When English finished active duty in 2005, he traveled on a nationwide speaking tour with the group Call of Duty, which he helped form.
English and Call of Duty was invited to a meeting with retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, who served Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 1993 to 1997, which is the highest ranked military position. Shalikashvili believed “don’t ask, don’t tell” was necessary in 1993, but recently openly changed his position.
“I think we had a strong impact because he was actually hearing it from the ground level troops,” said English. “He was actually hearing it from the people who were being effected by the policy. Usually you only hear about it at the policy level, how it’s effecting the military at large, but you don’t hear who the average, everyday soldier is who is being impacted.”
If attitudes are changing, what’s the problem with “don’t ask, don’t tell”?
“Any moment they can be thrown out,” said Steinman. “It only takes one vindictive person who does care that they’re gay, or one vindictive commanding officer, or even a commanding officer who is going to follow the letter of the law… that happens a lot too, we’ve got lots of stories where a commanding officer is almost in tears because they’ll have to throw somebody out because of the law, because of the policy.”
The number of discharges has gone down since 2001, which Steinman said is part of a pattern in recent wars. The military implements what is called a stop-loss, which means many losses of personnel for administrative reasons, such as failing fitness standards, are overlooked because of the need for labor. In previous wars, stop-loss allowed openly gay people to serve even up to the first gulf war. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” changed that.
“In this war, the military cannot officially include homosexual discharge under the stop-loss because it’s against the law.” said Steinman. “The law says, someone is homosexual you have to throw them out. Basically, it’s a little more complex than that.”
Steinman said that if gays and lesbians are allowed to honestly serve in the armed forces, the military would have access to thousands of additional qualified people.
English pointed out that while the wartime military is more lenient with age range, aptitude tests, and criminal records, a qualified group of individuals is left out. Last February, the Baltimore Sun reported a significant increase in recruits with backgrounds containing what the Army calls “serious criminal misconduct.”
“If they do join and try to keep their identity a secret and they’re found out, then they will get kicked out, even though they’re perfectly capable of doing the job,” said English.
“The numbers of gays and lesbians who get out of the military voluntarily, because they’re sick of living a lie,” Steinman said. “Those people are paid for, trained, and experienced, and the military is losing them because they’re tired of the risk.”
“The military is the largest federally funded organization in the country, so by not allowing gay and lesbian individuals to serve in the military that sends a very strong message about what type of country we are,” said English.