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Gays in the military

'Don't ask, don't tell' being fought again

2/11/03

By LEAH ETLING

SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER

Vicki Wagner is a lesbian comedian whose act is about getting kicked out of the military, something that really happened to her.

Her jokes get big laughs, but there's an underlying seriousness to the message. The outrage Ms. Wagner has about her own dismissal from the Air Force kicks in when she thinks about a possible war.

"This is a volunteer military. If a gay person wants to volunteer to give up their life that's their right to serve their country and be a patriotic American," said Ms. Wagner, who lives in West Hollywood.

As the Bush administration considers going to war with Iraq, the debate over "don't ask, don't tell" is again being fought in America. The Servicemember's Legal Defense Network has launched a campaign to repeal the 10-year-old policy -- those who disagree with the law say it is preventing soldiers who want to go to war from being able to do so.

And a UCSB center that studies sexual minorities in the military is closely monitoring the passage of military "stop-loss" policies under which commanders hold off discharging soldiers during wartime to keep additional manpower.

"If you have people who are willing to defend the country and put themselves in danger of loss of life, to have a policy that says 'we're not going to accept them because of their orientation' is a stupid waste of government resources," said Bob Handy of Lompoc, director of the Region 10 California Democratic party and chair of the California Veteran's Caucus.

But Tony Fox, a Lompoc resident who served in the Air Force for 25 years, said that allowing gays to go to war after revealing their sexual identity could be disruptive.

"You create a 'we' and 'they' type atmosphere," said Mr. Fox, who believes the Clinton administration ruined "don't ask, don't tell" by forcing too much attention on it.

The dismissal in November of nine linguists, six trained in Arabic, from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey has prompted a new look at what impact the "don't ask, don't tell" policy could have in times of war.

"We're going to war and we're pulling in reserves and we're pulling them on to active duty," said Charlie Sharples, who served as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam and is a member of the Palm Springs Gay Veterans Group.

"At the same time we're booting gays out of the Marine Corps, the Army and the Navy, when you have a person that's willing and able and you're kicking them out because of their sexual orientation and taking someone with a family or someone who's going to school that doesn't want to go."

In some cases, however, commanders are not dismissing soldiers who come to them and say: "I'm homosexual. Let me out."

"Linda," one of the linguists at the Defense Language Instititute, revealed her homosexuality to her company commander last May. She expected to be immediately discharged.

She wasn't.

"When she revealed that she was gay, her company commander refused to accept her statement, replying that her claim was 'not credible,'" said Nathaniel Frank, a scholar with UCSB's Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military. "This is an option commanders have if they simply want to ignore the statement and say, 'Get back to work.'"

As the U.S. gears up for possible war, incidents like Linda's are likely to increase under military stop-loss policies, scholars say, although so far gay dismissals are continuing under two stop-loss policies in effect.

During peacetime, being dismissed on the basis of homosexuality has been a straightforward process, although it often requires an investigation. It's much harder to get out in time of war due to suspicions that straight people might try to claim they were gay to avoid service -- think Klinger in the old TV series "M.A.S.H."

A retired naval petty officer who opposes war with Iraq, Mr. Handy said he could understand why some straight service members might try to pass themselves off as gay to avoid the conflict. The Washington, D.C.-based Servicemembers' network, which has received hundreds of calls from gay soldiers since troops started being called up, said such attempts are a possibility. The network will not assist straight people hoping to claim they are gay.

Linda, who now lives in Phoenix, was eventually discharged, but only after she submitted 10 statements from acquaintances verifying her sexuality, and in the face of more static from her commander. She wanted to leave the military in order to have an open relationship with her partner, also a language student.

With a ban that is more of an urge to look the other way, enforcement of the prohibition fluctuates, said Rhonda Evans, a UC Berkeley sociologist. The number of gay service members dismissed could drop as the possibility of conflict continues, which has historically been the case.

Discharges dropped by as much as 60 percent during the Korean War, and by about 40 percent during Vietnam, researchers have found.

The Bush administration has not indicated that there will be any changes to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that President Bill Clinton put into effect.

In 2001, 1,256 soldiers were discharged due to their sexual orientation, a record high. Mr. Frank thinks up to hundreds of other gay soldiers have been retained by commanders who are aware of their sexuality, and believes discharges will drop significantly if the U.S. attacks Iraq.

Ms. Wagner thinks gays will continue to be thrown out no matter what the global climate.

"If you're gay, you're gay and if you're gay you're not allowed in the military," she said, pointing out that a Marine Corps stop-loss policy issued last month exempted gay service members from being retained.

The military has argued that the Monterey linguists were dismissed because they violated the rules. Defense Department policy prohibits same-sex marriage, openly declaring one's gay identity, and homosexual sex.

Aaron Belkin, the UCSB center director and a political science professor, says allowing gays to serve during wartime, but tossing them out during peace, is a strike against allowing gay service at all.

"Such differential behavior draws into question the military's argument that gay and lesbian service members compromise the morale, cohesiveness and operational effectiveness of their units," Mr. Belkin said, "since it is during periods of conflict that morale, cohesiveness and operational effectiveness are most vital."

UCSB researchers argue that evidence from other nation's armed forces show the inclusion of gay people in military units does not undermine morale.

At least 24 foreign services, including those of Britain, Germany and Israel, do not ban gays from military service, and Mr. Belkin said they have not had cohesion problems of any magnitude.

In wartime, Ms. Wagner said, the last thing on one's mind would be sex.

"In a life or death situation, the only thought one has is of survival," she said.

That's not the opinion of Lt. Colonel Robert L. Maginnis, a retired Army officer who opposes allowing gays into the military.

Behavior is the issue, Mr. Maginnis wrote in an assessment of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for the Family Research Council.

"Why should we believe homosexual protests that they only want to serve their country and that, by working for the accommodation of homosexuality in the armed forces, they are only trying to better our military and its effectiveness, when this is a category of people consciously making a decision to do whatever they want to do, regardless of military law?" Mr. Maginnis asked.

The U.S. Naval Postgraduate School study found that the number of Navy officers who "feel uncomfortable in the presence of homosexuals'' decreased from 57.8 percent in 1994 to 36.4 percent in 1999.

STUDYING GAY SOLDIERS

UCSB's Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military was founded in 1999. Its researchers are scattered around the U.S. and communicate mostly by e-mail and phone. The center's intent is to produce objective studies about gay soldiers and the policies that affect them. The center is funded by grants of about $250,000 a year from the University of California and private foundations.

 

 

 

 

 
   
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