Silence=Relief

Sexual transmission of HIV from female to male is extremely rare, and random drug tests make IV-drug use an almost impossible transmission route for the virus among servicemembers. Nonetheless—because of regulations requiring all gay military personnel to be discharged—we lived a bizarre fiction that all the alumni (as the HIV-positive personnel call themselves) were heterosexual, and the HIV-ward staff rigorously adhered to a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy even before it existed. But for the most part, the alumni seldom opened up about being gay, believing that nothing said to anyone on the Defense Department payroll was privileged.

Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, though, servicemen would often let me know they were gay during screening interviews. I was thus flattered to find myself in all kinds of conversations the alumni didn’t feel comfortable having with other military personnel. Bob was one of those with whom I had far-ranging discussions. He came from a large Catholic family in Massachusetts and his father was a Marine. Like many active-duty members, Bob had joined the military right out of high school. When I met him, he had been in the Navy nearly 12 years and had been HIV-positive for about six. Before he was infected, he had almost been kicked out as a result of a witch hunt.

Given Bob’s experience, I felt certain that he would be elated when, in 1991, presidential candidate Bill Clinton promised to repeal the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. Instead, Bob was more worried about seeing the ban on gays repealed than about continuing to live under the existing policy. The Navy was his career. If being closeted about his sexual orientation was the price of remaining in his chosen career, he was willing to pay it.

Eliminating the existing policy would have meant he could have military guests in his home without having to “straighten it up”beforehand or worry about being spotted in a gay bar, but Bob didn’t see how it could be eliminated by fiat without creating an unofficial backlash that would make the official witch hunts seem like picnics.

At that time, gay men and lesbians in uniform constituted a kind of secret society and generally protected each others’ identities. In turn, the services for the most part didn’t go out of their way to root them out. Bob seemed to sense that if the exclusionary policy were rescinded, solidarity would evaporate and he would be alone to face a more actively anti-gay military.

He also feared that other gay servicemembers would feel no need to maintain their previous silence and might innocently (or even maliciously) identify those who preferred to remain closeted. And suspicions about who might be gay, widespread homophobia, and a new focus on homosexuality (fueled by all the practical problems rescission of the policy would cause) was a volatile combination Bob feared would erupt in violence.

As I became friends with more of the alumni, I found that Bob’s feelings were shared by most of them. Their position surprised me, because until then, I had pretty much taken the activist line that the policy should be eliminated. My viewpoint was born out of the grudge I carried for years after losing my job as a civilian intelligence analyst at the National Security Agency because of my sexual orientation. But the pragmatism of my gay acquaintances and friends in the military trumped my resentful ideology and convinced me that the time wasn’t right for such a change in 1991, and that it’s still not right today. Clinton’s promise to eliminate the gay ban was deeply misguided, and in part because of his supporters’ failure to take into account the feelings of servicemembers like Bob, the “don’t ask, don’t tell”policy has proven to be a disaster for its intended beneficiaries.

The accession of a Republican to the presidency may seem a major defeat to those who would like all restrictions related to gays serving in the military removed. But many active-duty gay people may actually be relieved that the issue is unlikely to surface during the next four years, relieved to return to a regime that has an out-of-sight-out-of-mind philosophy toward gays in uniform.

Among gay people, the question of serving openly in the military does not have a long history. True, for many decades, gay men and lesbians who wanted to serve were thrown out; even so, the only gay people who really took an interest in the subject were those who wanted to serve and weren’t allowed to.

But starting in 1989, a number of high-profile legal challenges to the military’s exclusionary policy began to make their way through the courts and into the nightly news. At the same time, hate-crime legislation was under consideration in a number of states, gay-theme movies were hitting the mainstream, and gay-theme subplots were no longer forbidden in prime-time TV shows.

In January 1991, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon had suspended discharges of homosexuals because of the need for personnel during the Gulf War. By June, there were reports that the Army was reconsidering its ban on gays in the military.

In August 1991, after his spokesman, Pete Williams, was outed by gay activists, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said that “the notion that somehow there is a security risk involved—in allowing homosexuals to serve in the Armed Forces—is something of an old chestnut.”Throughout the summer and fall, leading newspapers disapprovingly editorialized about the ban, citing it as the last remaining vestige of de jure discrimination in the country.

It was in this environment that a few gay activists whispered in the ear of the governor of Arkansas that he needed to take a stand on tough issues if he wanted their support in his bid for the presidency. Thus in October 1991, Clinton first publicly promised to eliminate the ban on gays in the military if elected president.

And yet, no one—not the gay activists, not Clinton or his aides—worked to find out if gay people in the military actually wanted what the would-be president and his gay backers wanted for them. Those who supported eliminating the ban assumed that because a handful of active-duty and former military gay men and lesbians challenged the policy in court and went on the daytime talk show circuit decrying it, all gay men and lesbians in the armed forces felt the same.

Like a person used to living in shadows who suddenly finds a spotlight shined on him, most gay servicemembers I encountered felt exposed, cornered, and vulnerable when the issue became a cause clbre.

Keep in mind that military people—gay or not—are generally more conservative (socially and politically) than their civilian brothers and sisters. Not only are they conservative, but gay people in uniform are often reluctant to publicly acknowledge their sexuality. They fear repercussions ranging from discharge to physical violence, and many are extremely conflicted about their sexual orientation—especially those who didn’t know or hadn’t acknowledged it before entering the service. They’re used to leading two separate lives, one ostensibly straight and one more-or-less gay, with little or no cross-over between them.

Of course, lesbian and gay servicemembers would be under no obligation to make their sexual orientations public if the policy were changed. And it’s likely that few would take the risk of identifying themselves, given that such a policy change would prompt dormant homophobia to bubble to the surface. But if they didn’t feel at liberty to come out, what would be gained by allowing them to serve openly?

Despite these practical considerations, gay activists and their supporters pushed Clinton to repeal the ban, without weighing the consequences for the tens of thousands of gay people then serving. To the activists pushing Clinton to repeal the ban, the cause was the important thing, and the people caught in its aftermath mere abstractions. I found their paternalistic attitude both irritating and counterproductive, and the few of us who had misgivings about the “don’t ask, don’t tell”policy have been proven tragically correct. What’s more, what was before merely an internal military regulation is now enshrined in federal law.

As if to fulfill Bob’s dread, a year after Clinton announced his intention to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces, Navy petty officer Allen Schindler was murdered by fellow sailors on the U.S. base in Sasebo, Japan because they thought he was gay.

The climate hasn’t gotten much better since “don’t ask, don’t tell”became the military’s official policy. The co-executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network recently noted that “Many [servicemembers] come out and are discharged as their only effective recourse to stop threats and other harassment. Harassment increased 120 percent in 1998 alone. Others are turned in by people they thought they could trust—psychologists, doctors, best friends, and even relatives—or are outed by commanders who improperly seize their diaries, computer files, and private correspondence. Leaders routinely look the other way while service members are hounded about their sexual orientation.

Seven years after Schindler was murdered, Army Private First Class Barry Winchell—by all accounts a model soldier—was bludgeoned to death in his barracks at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, in the early morning hours of July 5, 1999. The two soldiers who committed the murder with a baseball bat as he slept thought he was gay.

Although gay activists like to cite Harry Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981 integrating blacks into the military as the archetype for what they seek for lesbians and gay men, they have an imperfect impression of just what President Truman actually did. His order included no fixed timetable. It required that “any necessary changes [be made] without impairing efficiency or morale.”And a committee was created to determine how best the transition to a completely integrated force could be carried out.

Often overlooked, too, is the fact that the integration process had already been underway in the Army at least since the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, if not earlier. It was then that the theater commander desperately asked for all the volunteers he could get (regardless of race and, one suspects, sexual orientation) to help turn back the German offensive. Most important, the integration effort continued for years after Truman promulgated his executive order. Further, Executive Order 9981 was issued at a time when the draft was still in force; no one had a choice about entering and continuing to serve in a racially integrated military.

Gay activists tend to overlook these extenuating circumstances, in part because the Truman order fits neatly into their oft-made analogies equating the situation with respect to gays in the military today with that of blacks after World War II.

Yet no one who is familiar with the black struggle for civil rights could say so cavalierly, as most gay activists do, that blacks and gay people are in the same boat. Gay people, for starters, have not been routinely mistreated throughout U.S. history the way blacks have, and they were and are not perceived the same way by society at large. The reason is simple: Blacks are visible and therefore have been unable to avoid persecution.

Gay people, on the other hand, can pass for straight at will. And until society has changed enough so that most gay people don’t feel compelled to live multiple existences, they will continue to remain invisible. The paradox is that remaining invisible allows others to demonize gay people and to project every unpleasant characteristic onto them without fear of contradiction, which further discourages gay people from becoming visible.

I know some will accuse me of blaming the victim, but I believe much of the responsibility for disrupting this vicious cycle rests with gay people themselves. Polls indicate the best antidote for homophobia is knowing people who are gay, but few gay people are willing to administer it.

Blacks, to achieve their rights, willingly faced ruthless violence not only from anonymous perpetrators like members of White Citizens Councils and the KKK, but also from officials in local government. In the end, many were beaten or even killed for no other reason than their skin color. Think of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the lunch counter sit-ins, and Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. The list is long.

On the other hand, I can’t think of one instance in which gay civilians have ever systematically and en masse risked their jobs, much less broken heads or jail, for equal treatment. The Stonewall riots of 1969 might qualify if they had had a coherent goal in mind. But they weren’t organized social protests. They were riots, violent reactions by a small group of gay people (specifically, drag queens) tired of being harassed merely because of who they were.

But those who participated in the riots—physically brave as they were—risked little; they were already social outcasts. Not only were they spurned by society at large, they were also anathema to most “respectable”gay men and lesbians of the day who dressed and acted conventionally and remained in the closet. The same is true of ACT-UP’s various public outrages in big cities like New York and San Francisco.

Some argue that annual gay-pride parades— attracting, in places, hundreds of thousands of gay and straight participants and spectators—demonstrate that society is changing. After all, if coming out of their closets is so dangerous, why do so many gay people do so once a year? But putting on a pink triangle or carrying a rainbow flag in public once a year—in a city you don’t live in—with hundreds or thousands of others and then returning to one’s seemingly straight life for the rest of the year is hardly “coming out of the closet.”Attending a gay-pride parade is a low-risk, feel-good endeavor, because the chance of being identified as gay by someone who can negatively affect your life (fire you from a job, evict you from your apartment) is minimal. There is anonymity, as well as strength, in numbers.

Also, despite the fact they’re ostensibly meant to commemorate the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969, practically every weekend from early May through late October you can find a so-called gay-pride celebration somewhere in the country. With their six-month run and emphasis on showing as much skin as possible, they have turned into nothing but a hedonist’s equivalent of a progressive dinner party, not a means of making a political statement.

In Europe after World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower told his clerk, WAC Sergeant Johnnie Phelps, that he’d heard rumors there were lesbians in the WAC battalion and asked her to prepare a list naming them so he could discharge them. Phelps bravely told Ike that she’d do as he asked, but that her name would be at the top of the list. A more junior clerk then spoke up saying, “Begging the general’s pardon, but my name will be above Sgt. Phelps’ because I’ll be typing it.”Realizing he’d be getting rid of most of his file clerks, typists, and a large share of his headquarters’ support staff, Eisenhower withdrew the order.

But what was the response of the “gay community”in the 1980s to the Coors Brewing Company’s homophobic personnel policies? Did all the gay people working for Coors follow Johnnie Phelps’ example? No. Instead, self-appointed gay leaders, safe in their gay ghettos, called for an ineffectual boycott of Coors products in gay and lesbian bars. La di da! As if giving up a particular brand of beer were a sacrifice! And do wave after wave of gay people conduct sit-down strikes in marriage license offices around the country to protest the current marriage laws they claim they want changed? Not that I’ve heard.

Blacks, by risking all, showed that they considered equal treatment important to them. What do ordinary gay people show by not risking anything? Until gay civilians are willing to put things they consider important in jeopardy for a principle—if only by letting their best friends and family members know they’re gay—I can’t see how they can claim a new gays-in-the-military policy is a priority. Gay activists, most never having served in the military, put the cart before the horse when they focus on the military rather than on bringing about tolerance and acceptance in larger society, which ultimately would make integration of openly gay people in the military a non-issue. And it seems a little unfair (and hypocritical) to force the military to take steps we won’t make civilian employers take.

Rarely do gay activists acknowledge that gay people might bear some responsibility for reaching their stated goal. The pick-and-shovel work of individual civilian gays showing themselves to be worthy of respect and compassion by being good neighbors, co-workers, etc. and, at the same time, subtly letting others know they’re gay is not something gay activists seem enthusiastic about embracing. Instead, like perpetual two-year-olds, activists and their followers want their way and they want it NOW!, preferably from a magic-bullet solution like an executive order or Supreme Court decision, requiring little personal sacrifice from individual rank-and-file gay people. But there is no gain without pain. Forced changes in behavior often have a way of hardening rather than transforming beliefs. As we saw in Boston in the ’70s, court-ordered integration through school busing was singularly unsuccessful at improving cross-cultural understanding.

The argument is often made that any military policy change can be made to work with good leadership. But good leadership only goes so far. Assume policies are put in place that address anti-gay harassment and violence. How are we to know if they’re successful unless people come forward to say they’ve been harassed, an act that would breed assumptions about their sexual orientation? A non-exclusion policy can only work if the social climate in the country at large and in the military allows gay people to feel secure about coming out.

I understand that in some people’s minds (mine included), this is a basic issue of human rights or morality. But even our most revered leaders have understood there are circumstances under which dealing with moral issues requires patience and a longer-term perspective. Rescinding the anti-gay policy before the rest of the society is ready for such change would weaken the military—by throwing gasoline on a fire still smoldering after eight years. Getting rid of the ban on gays serving openly in the military is the morally correct thing to do. But practical considerations must sometimes delay the pursuit of moral visions.

Given low unemployment, the current dearth in the desired age cohort, and an all-volunteer military, policymakers don’t shrink their employment pool without good reason. So why do they eliminate all gay men and lesbians from consideration? In wartime, as evident at the Battle of the Bulge and in Ike’s office, many allowances are made which might not be made in peacetime—including relaxing prohibitions on gay service. In peacetime, however, administrative imperatives often supersede other considerations. Commanders are understandably reluctant to push policies that might hinder mission performance by impeding recruitment and retention or by making personnel uncomfortable with gay people who serve with them.

Aside from reinstating the draft and forcing almost everyone to serve—gay and straight—the only alternative today is to recognize that military missions are paramount and those who might hinder mission performance, even if that hindrance stems from others’ bigotry, must be excluded, however reluctantly.

It’s folly to say gay people should be allowed to serve openly in the military, and that non-gay people should be forced to accept them, when the majority of society feels otherwise. Privacy and other concerns might seem ridiculous covers for a homophobic agenda. But activists don’t seem to understand that such concerns are real. Instead, they simply pooh-pooh them. This is not a tactic likely to achieve much success.

All of the armed forces are experiencing increased operating tempos, personnel retention, and recruiting problems, and an internal debate over not only future force structures but over missions. Do they really need another complicating factor to deal with, given the disruption overturning the exclusionary policy would entail? I don’t think so.

As the older and more homophobic military brass retire and as acceptance of gays in civilian society changes, gay men and lesbians already in the military may start to feel comfortable enough to take a few tentative steps out of their closets. But that time is likely a decade or more in the future. Let’s not rush things; let’s leave the policy as it stands pending that day when everyone is judged not by their sexual orientation but by the content of their character.

Andrew Webb is a freelance writer in San Diego.