The Enemy Within

'Don't Ask, Don't Tell?'— Or Seek And Destroy? The Military's New Gay Purge

They are hunted, harassed, forced to conceal parts of themselves that cannot always be hidden. They are hounded and criminalized not so much for any actions as for the paranoid phantasm of what their unspoken desires might lead to. They are reminded every moment of their lives that those desires and what they might lead to render them unfit to protect their country. Regardless of their skills, their training, their proven abilities, they are told that they are the enemy within. When the First Liar set in play the chain of betrayals that has come to characterize his presidency, he did so with a political move whose cynicism was uncharacteristically overt. Bill Clinton's "solution" to the Pentagon ban on gays in the military was to improvise a policy that traded self-erasure for protection. As it turned out, the protection offered by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was little more than illusion. And silence was not nearly enough.

According to a survey released last month and compiled by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a Washington group providing legal aid to military personnel, the fallout of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is far greater than previously understood. Annual discharges of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals from the military have almost doubled since the Clinton policy went into effect on February 28, 1994, with the Pentagon cashiering 1149 military members for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual in 1998 alone. Ironically, the discharges occurred at a time when the Pentagon is reporting drops in military enrollment that one high-ranking air force officer publicly proclaimed "the greatest shortage we've ever had in peacetime."

The navy currently has 6900 unfilled positions. The air force, which suffered severe pilot shortages in recent years, projects that it will be at least 2000 pilots shy of the 13,641 enlistment quota it has set for 2002. Despite signing and retention bonuses, boosted college education funds, thousands of new recruiters in the field, and tens of millions of dollars in advertising campaigns (the navy opened 150 recruiting stations last year and increased its ad budget from $58 million to $72 million), the personnel deficit in an expanding military will soon reach many thousands. In February, Army Secretary Louis Caldera argued that the armed forces should relax their standards and permit recruitment of high school dropouts for the first time. "Frankly, right now we have rules that don't make sense," said Caldera. "Every day we turn away people who want to join."

Scott Gillis

Yet every year the armed forces jettison people whose sexuality is their only impediment to service. Of the 414 air force discharges reported last year, fully 271 were gay-related and took place at a single air force base in Texas. Throughout the services, reports of asking and pursuit have increased by 42 percent, according to the SLDN. Even by the downplayed standards of General Accounting Office estimates, the cost to taxpayers of discharging gay service members has already exceeded $130 million. To calculate how conservative this figure is, consider the military's costs to replace people who are kicked out, to investigate suspected and accused homosexuals, and to defend the policy in federal court. Jill Szymanski left the navy after a 12-year stint during which she earned a master's degree in trauma and critical-care nursing, an education taxpayers funded. Despite a promising career, in which she oversaw the duties of 1000 nurses worldwide, Szymanski resigned last year. As she recently explained to The Advocate, "For years I figured that if I had a perfect record, I'd be safe in the navy even though I was a lesbian. But when I saw gay people being discharged, I wondered how I could continue to give 150 percent to an organization that could turn its back on me overnight."

Institutional betrayal is by no means the only threat facing service members. "It has become an increasingly hostile environment," says SLDN's Michelle Benecke, coauthor of "Conduct Unbecoming," a report documenting rampant escalation in antigay harassment throughout the armed forces. "Up to and including death threats."

The protective essence of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" lies buried in a Department of Defense directive stipulating that "sexual orientation is considered a personal and private matter, and homosexual orientation is not a bar to continued service unless manifested by homosexual conduct." But for many service members, following the letter of the policy offers little security. "Living in forced isolation, in constant fear of investigation and inadvertent disclosure is harmful to gay service personnel," wrote one naval officer last year, in a letter resigning his commission. "Each day I am witness to . . . antigay comments and attitudes. The navy takes no action to stop this improper and outrageous behavior on the part of its best and brightest officers. My witness to this unfortunate antigay climate and the direct harm that it causes me, forces me to disclose to you that I am gay."

Neither is silence enough. Testifying before Congress in 1993, General Colin Powell vowed that "we will not witch hunt. We will not chase. We will not seek to learn orientation." The witch hunts Powell referred to were hardly events in the misty past. Wholesale gay purges of the last decades included the 1980 investigation of women onboard the USS Norton Sound, which resulted in the discharge of eight women sailors; the army's ouster of eight military police officers at West Point in 1986; the 1988 investigation of 30 women, including every African American woman, onboard the destroyer-tender USS Yellowstone (eight were discharged); the 1988 investigation of five of the 13 female crew members onboard the USS Grapple; and the two-year investigation, beginning in 1986, of the Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina, where 246 women were questioned, at least 27 women were discharged, and three were sent to jail.

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