By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
It was into this atmosphere of paranoia and intolerance that Bill Clinton delivered gay service members, armored with the flimsy rhetoric of a policy whose cornerstone is the imperative to lie. "The way it works is, if you don't constantly affirm heterosexuality, homosexuality is implicit," explains Mark Navin, who resigned from the naval ROTC last year out of concern not only for his career but for his life. "Never mind being 'out.' Just not acting completely straight was not an option. I was 'passing.' It was an act I perfected. But I was living in fear."
The 21-year-old Navin, son of a career naval officer, enlisted in the ROTC while an undergraduate at Cornell, in part because a $100,000 scholarship package was "pretty appealing," but also because "my father was a great gentleman and a great citizen and I thought serving my country was something I really wanted to do."
From the first weeks of basic training, however, Navin found himself "under constant suspicion. I was constantly being asked and constantly lying. There is tacit agreement that all fags are bad. You hid yourself if you did not want to be mocked."
On a 1997 weekend trip with six other midshipmen to the military shooting range at Quantico, Virginia, Navin was publicly "accused" of being in a relationship with another midshipman. He was "called a fag and a homo." Navin continued his studies and remained in the ROTC, hoping his situation would improve when he reached the equivalent of junior officer status. Last year, before shipping out on a final training cruise, he came to the conclusion that his dreams of naval service were an impossibility. "I had thought maybe it was not going to be as bad among officers as among enlisted men," he explains. "No one ever threatened to kill me. But I know enough about things that have happened, guys saying, 'In port, we went and beat up some fags.' Stuff like that is tolerated at all command levels."
Recognizing the increased incidence of harassment under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered new antiharassment guidelines drawn up in April 1998; the guidelines built on an earlier memorandum drafted by Undersecretary of Defense Edwin Dorn. But the Pentagon has yet to distribute the Dorn memo to service chiefs, the SLDN claims. "They're accomplishing through harassment what the policy can't," Benecke says.
Overall discharges of gay service members have increased by 86 percent since the imposition of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Most, the Pentagon claims, involve service members who "voluntarily" state their sexual orientation. "There is no question that telling the military you are gay is the quickest way of getting an honorable discharge," says Charles Moskos, the military sociologist at Northwestern University who helped draft the policy. "And we know for a fact that there are false accusations of harassment."
Yet, as Benecke insists, "Pentagon officials have been less than forthcoming" in telling the American public that they define any disclosure of sexual orientation as "voluntary." Among the "voluntary" admissions that have resulted in discharge against gay service members are statements to psychotherapists, in personal journals, in response to direct questioning, in anonymous online profiles, to military clergy, and those "coerced out of service members due to fear, intimidation, assaults, death threats and threats of criminal prosecution." According to Pentagon Guidelines on Homosexual Conduct in the Armed Forces, "The listing by a service member of someone of the same gender as the person to be contacted in the case of an emergency, as an insurance beneficiary, or in a similar context, does not provide a basis for separation or further investigation." But designating a same-sex beneficiary, says one ex-navy officer, is equivalent to signing a confession. "Very few service members 'outed' by the military in these circumstances," asserts the SLDN report, "experience being forced out of the closet as voluntary."
Many who have served under the Clinton policy now find they "have had to leave the armed forces," says Benecke. "Harassment was not unheard of before, but it was not, in most units, a daily or hourly event. Now it's the norm. It's gotten bad, too, for people who support the rights of gay members to serve. They're seen as sympathizers. They can be investigated, too."
On Christmas Eve of 1998, Tom Reed an army officer who asked that his real name be withheld was conducting barracks check when two soldiers assaulted him. "My job that night," he explains, "was to maintain the security of the batallion, to babysit basically. I checked doors, looked for minors in the barracks, for alcohol. Being it was Christmas night, I stuck around longer than usual. And these guys were talking about this person is gay, that person is gay, baiting me into saying that I knew whoever. They thought I was gay, although I have never given any indication that I was." As Reed was getting ready to leave, one of the soldiers jumped up and attacked him. Although the two soldiers were later discharged on a variety of counts (not all related to the assault), their allegation that the incident began when Reed made a homosexual pass led the army to investigate him. Reed now faces not only discharge but possible criminal charges himself. "Five months later, there's still an investigation on me," he says, from his new posting. "They said I had been drinking. But I have years in recovery and I don't drink. I had to do staff duty again right after the incident and walk through barracks at night. I'm 28 and few things make me afraid. But that made me afraid. There's a lot of young ignorant kids out there who know nothing of life. You put a couple of drinks in them and they could do you some serious harm."