Selling a Newly Out Armed Forces

The Pentagon makes sure the public supports 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal

When the United States moved to an all-volunteer military force in 1973, the Pentagon started to treat military service like a business. Recruitment became a top priority and has been ever since. Now the top brass are trying to sell the American public on another innovation, an out-and-proud, post–"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military.

By all accounts, they're doing a pretty good job of what Tim Haggerty, director of the Humanities Scholars Program at Carnegie Mellon University, describes as a "soft sell." "The Pentagon is seeing great success with a low-key approach," he says. "They are saying to civilian America: 'Look, military order and chain of command take precedence over personal opinion. It's business as usual at military bases around the nation.'"

Top military commanders had the advantage of predicting the eventual end of DADT—which everyone knew was only a stopgap, with our military eventually joining every other Western democracy's nondiscriminatory policy. "There was a lot of conversation about when the policy would go away, not if," Haggerty says.

Military recruiters and Pentagon PR honchos had long ago realized that "repeal wasn't going to undermine the military leadership or break the all-volunteer force," says Aaron Belkin, who teaches political science at San Francisco State University and does research on civil-military relations for the Palm Center. In fact, the Pentagon told recruiters they could accept gay and lesbian recruits as early as July 2011—months before the repeal went into effect.

Madison Avenue has had a long history of working with the U.S. Department of Defense. As with DADT's end, when President Harry Truman's 1952 executive order desegregated the ranks of the U.S. Army, the main battle was on the civilian front. "People didn't have the preconditioning with racial integration," Haggerty says. "What DADT did for us was say: 'Look, we know there are gay and lesbian service members. We just don't want them to tell us.'"

Some would argue that it took decades for blacks—and later, women—to integrate successfully into the ranks. America had to wait until 1989 before Army General Colin Powell became the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now Haggerty believes we'll see an openly gay man (or lesbian) serve in the highest military post in less time, because sexual identity for young people is quickly becoming a nonissue. "The average age of an enlisted person is 19 or so," he says. "These are people who grew up where issues surrounding gay equality were always on the table. It would be difficult to find someone in that age group who's never known a person that is gay or lesbian; 20 years ago, you'd get a different response."

The stumbling block to full integration of gay troops remains what Dr. Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago's law school has called the "Ick Factor"—mainstream America's obsession with man-on-man sex. Largely for that reason, the idea that someone was gay and a good soldier didn't exist. The very presence of a gay man in the military was considered disruptive.

According to Nussbaum, what defines "gay" is what is done in the bedroom. "All societies known to us have subordinated some group or groups of people by ascribing disgusting properties to them," she says. "This is a key feature of misogyny, of anti-Semitism, of historical Indian caste prejudice, of American racism, and so forth."

Lesbian sex has the opposite effect: Men and women view it as downright hot. For proof, look at the media storm that greeted a December 21, 2011, photo of Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta and Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell embracing on a Virginia Beach pier after Gaeta returned home from 80 days at sea.

That the two attractive sailors became the first same-sex couple to share the Navy's traditional first kiss is no accident.

The official word is that Gaeta won a raffle aboard ship. But it's hard to believe that it happened by chance, considering the Navy's engineering of such Kodak moments. Even President Barack Obama uploaded the photo of the two gorgeous women to his Tumblr account. Note as well: The embrace "coincidently" took place nearly one year to the date that Congress repealed DADT. U.S. Navy spokeswoman Ensign Sylvia Landis played down the event to reporters as "really just a normal homecoming."

Gaeta has not granted an interview post-kiss and has yet to join any of the military's newly formed LGBT groups. Nor will anyone at the Pentagon comment on the image, which has become nearly as iconic as that sailor planting one on a supine nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.

Contrast this to the widespread Web reaction of a similar image of a male serviceman that surfaced weeks later: The photo of Marine Brandon Morgan locked in a romantic embrace with his boyfriend was initially posted on the Facebook page Gay Marines, where it was met with enthusiasm, yes, but also plenty of contempt. Marine Captain Neal Simpson, an openly gay service member serving as the assistant operations officer for 1st Marine Regiment in Camp Pendleton, California, said his colleagues' reaction to the "Marine Kiss" photo split down the middle. "On one hand, many treated the fact that it was an image of two men kissing as irrelevant," he says. But on the other hand, many others claimed any overt public display of affection while in uniform violated protocol—a red herring at best.

"Marines get excited to see their loved ones," Simpson says. "I can guarantee that PDA following a deployment is a common occurrence. I've seen it myself."

Oh, and what was the official Marine response? "It's your typical homecoming photo," according to a spokesperson.

In fact, the vast majority of newly out service members are doing a pretty good job of self-policing their public behavior without any direction from above, much the same way early civil rights protesters always dressed formally and behaved impeccably while facing the jaws of police dogs and cannons of fire hoses. Typical of these still-early post-DADT days is OutServe's recently issued uniform guidance for Pride celebrations: "There is a time and a place for everything, and this year is probably not the time to make waves. . . . The issue of open LGBT military service is still viewed by many as a political hot potato, and marching in uniform could be viewed as an act of protest. OutServe's recommendation: This is not the year to take that step. Let's wait a year, demonstrate our professionalism as we march in civilian clothes, and next year, having proven ourselves, we can work with the Department and gain formal approval to proudly march together as a uniformed contingent for Pride."

OutServe and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network are, however, actively calling for military recruiters to reach out to the gay community in the same way they target blacks, Hispanics, and women. But don't expect recruiters at Pride events. OutServe spokesperson Sue Fulton, a West Point graduate, thinks the "no news is good news" soft-sell recruiting strategy is just fine—for now. "Military culture always puts the team above the individual," she says. "I suspect authorities have no interest in highlighting individual gay and lesbian service members in any way."

What the anti-DADT forces have been successfully emphasizing is the huge cost savings to the U.S. taxpayer—estimated at $500 million by David Bakke, editor of Money Crashers Personal Finance. Rather than recruitment and enlistment plummeting, Bakke says, "this has turned out to be false, as many recruiters say both the quality and quantity of recruits is improving." DADT repeal actually opened up some valuable avenues that had been closed, such as ROTC and recruitment at elite universities.

There was no exodus of troops because the Pentagon did a good job of preparing the ranks. More than a year ago, service members filled out surveys that overwhelmingly supported DADT repeal. The statements of military chiefs that gay and lesbian service members will be treated equally, period, have been crucial to attitudes down the ranks. At a May 10 Pentagon press briefing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters: "My view is that the military has kind of moved beyond it. It's become part and parcel of what they've accepted within the military." Service leaders have been sending him monthly updates on the impact of the repeal. No incidents have been reported as of two months ago.

As for the top brass, the most outspoken opponent, Marine Corps head General James Amos met a lesbian couple at a Marine ball late last year. His wife, Bonnie, greeted them with: "This is great! Nice to meet you." Even in the tough-as-nails Marines, Amos told AP that he was "very pleased with how it has gone."

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