Silence kills

By TONY GIAMPETRUZZI  |  May 25, 2006

Missing the target
When Bill Clinton made the campaign promise in 1991 that he would overturn the ban on gays in the military, it was the first national declaration of its kind to recognize equality for gays and lesbians. Never before had a presidential candidate so overtly courted the gay vote let alone promise a sweeping policy change that we now know would affect the lives of roughly 65,000 US servicemen and women.

And, never before had such a policy blunder erupted. In a double-handed move by Colin Powell (then the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff), military elite, and lawmakers, the military’s ban was lifted, but replaced with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that pretty much stated that gays and lesbians can serve in the military as long as they keep their sexual orientation a secret. At the same time, commanders could not “ask” whether someone is gay on a hunch. That meant the dark inquisition days of ferreting gays out of the military were over, but the new law could and would be capriciously used at the whim of those in charge, and further stigmatized gays and lesbians.

In fact, with a doctrine now enshrined as law, discharges from the military ballooned following DADT, a fact that has led those opposed to the law, and even many of those who supported it in 1992, to consider it a complete failure. That’s why a new bill, H.R. 1059, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, to repeal DADT and replace it with a non-discrimination law, is making inroads in Congress, even if the senators don't know it yet.

“With respect to gay discharges, they definitely skyrocketed through 2000, much higher than they had been before DADT,” says Dixon Osburn, the executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a watchdog agency assisting those affected by the law. “But, since 9/11, discharges have dropped 40 percent, and are returning to the lower levels we saw in 1992. That doesn’t suggest that policy has improved in any way, it just shows where the discharge numbers are. Now, two to four people are being kicked out every day for being gay. What we’re seeing is that they need people in the military, and they don’t have time to be distracted with these ancillary issues. That’s exactly the way it should be. The commanders shouldn’t have to focus on this.”

A group of gay veterans recently took a national tour speaking out in opposition to the law. Among them were linguistic specialists (including an Arabic-qualified interrogator who was discharged under the law, and two Korean-speaking intelligence analysts who declined to renew their enlistments because they felt vulnerable and didn’t want to risk their futures), and a retired Coast Guard admiral who was one of three top-level officers who came out in 2003 to draw attention to the law’s problems. Any problems lower-level troops have with gay people result from “a failure of leadership,” not some inherent problem with gays or the military they serve in, says Rear Admiral Alan Steinman, the highest-ranking serviceman on the tour.

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Shrouded bliss
Those pushing for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell chose New England as their proving ground because it’s arguably the most liberal region of the nation. Yes, we have centrist Republican leaders, every single state has vast protections for gays and lesbians (Connecticut and Vermont will let same-sex couples register into a civil union), and, in Massachusetts gays can tie the knot.

But, if either member of the betrothed is serving in the military, they might want to think twice before making such a public record of their union: while Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut have laws against bias on the job, they most certainly do not apply to the US military or the National Guard. And that bumps right up against DADT.

“I don’t think we can give any individual a hard and fast rule when it comes to grounds for discharge. I think the best we can do is tell people there are lots of things to consider — finances, partner’s finances, long-term financial planning, kids,” says Gary Buseck, an attorney at Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders adding that, although there are other trips and traps (usually for non-citizens, those wishing to adopt) for people who wish to marry in Massachusetts, the military question is a big one.

“There are a lot of things you can do that don’t require ‘telling.’ But, each individual needs to make a series of choices: how long they have been in the military, is it your career, do you depend on the pension. Maybe you decide as much as you’d like to get married, you put it off because you don’t want to risk that pension.”

Not quite fair, now, is it?

Dixon Osburn doesn’t think so, and the growing number of states that allow for such unions is yet another reason for the urgency of a DADT repeal.

“When you have a public record that indicates your relationship, that could cause a problem. You [also] can’t get spousal benefits, which is one of the reasons why we want to get married [in the first place]. It is tricky and we do have an increasing number of cases that come to us with people who want to get married and want to know what the consequences are,” says Osburn, of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “Some of these couples have children and they want to figure out how their children can get proper health care ... they all involve risk ... it’s really a matter of what sort of risks they want to take.”

For most, though, it’s the pension, stupid — and those in the know would often suggest to just not pop the question.

“Anybody who does anything that leads to a public record risks being discharged. The question is whether the military would actually get a copy of that information,” says Osburn. “With the public record there, there is certainly a strong risk that the military could obtain that information.”
_TG

 

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