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.”
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.
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.”
According to the Navy’s General Medical Officer Manual, “one way of looking at homosexuals in the military is to distinguish between those who adapt to the military environment and those who do not. The adapters are invisible and do not seek to disclose their homosexuality.” But fewer are finding it possible to remain invisible in an atmosphere of taunting and harassment, of threats arising on all sides, and of the dissembling that is its own form of death.
Brandon Dubroc filed for discharge from the navy on the eve of a six-month deployment. Dubroc originally enlisted because he “honestly enjoyed the discipline, the strict core structure, the fact that everything in the military is black or white.” He also relished the “opportunity to serve my country. I’m patriotic, believe it or not.” Dubroc says of himself that he “doesn’t fit the stereotype of gay.” He was never publicly identified as such in the service. Yet he found it increasingly difficult to “exist in this atmosphere of ridicule and hiding and constant discrimination,” as shipmates joked openly and repeatedly that ” ‘nobody’d better be queer, because in the navy we kill our fags.’ ” Dubroc made a decision to seek discharge in 1998, “when I heard some guys talking and saying, ‘If we find one on the ship, we’ll throw him overboard.’ I realized then that I couldn’t go to my command and say, ‘Look, this is what has been said,’ because then it’s me they’d investigate.” Not wanting to choose “between silence and being murdered by my shipmates,” Dubroc concluded that the only recourse was to sacrifice his career by committing an act whose probity has greater moral dimension than the man in the White House can ever hope to achieve. He came out.
Research assistance: Lou Bardel