Colonel Takes On Don’t Ask

The Army Times publishes critique of gay policy after Times, Post say no

Bishop is perhaps the highest-ranking active duty officer to advocate for the elimination of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which prevents gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

"Despite our government’s claims of liberty for all, we leave homosexuals out,” Bishop wrote in his op-ed, titled "Gays in the Military: It’s a Question of Liberty,” published in the March 7 issue of The Army Times. “When we deny their right to military service, we improperly restrict the franchise of citizenship and give in to homophobic prejudice very like the unreasoned racial and gender prejudices of the past."

The Army Times is the weekly news magazine of the U.S. Army.

Opponents of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell immediately hailed Bishop’s editorial as more evidence that the ban has become unpopular even among the military.

"This is a major step forward," said Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an organization that supplies legal aid to gay servicemembers. “That such a high-ranking active duty officer has taken such a strong stand against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is very indicative.”

Ralls was quick to point out that the shift in attitude is gaining strength among straight service personnel, both currently serving and retired.

"Of the eight retired admirals and generals we had appear in support of Meehan’s bill, only three are gay," Ralls noted, referring to the introduction two weeks ago of a bill that would overturn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell by Rep. Martin Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat who is a member of the powerful Armed Services Committee.

Ralls also cited a recent study that showed that more than half of junior enlisted servicemembers believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly.

Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said Bishop’s public critique was another voice in the growing assault on the Pentagon policy.

"The list of retired officers opposed to the ban keeps growing and growing," Belkin said. "But Col. Bishop is incredibly important because up until now people of his rank waited until they were out of the service before they said anything."

Belkin said he hoped the Army’s casual publication of Bishop’s piece indicated that even internally the organization is not as opposed to gays and lesbians as it once was.

"Even the rationale for the ban is fading,” he asserted. “The whole point was to protect those soldiers crammed together in foxholes, the very same soldiers who now, as a majority, say gays and lesbians should serve."

This week a member of the SLDN board, retired Navy psychiatrist Captain Mike Rankin, also advocated for the ban’s end, saying many servicemembers have been discharged after their doctor or mental health professional reported them as gay to their commanding officer.

As part of National LGBT Health Awareness Week, Rankin released a statement claiming that simple medical actions, like requesting an HIV test or seeking psychological counseling, are enough to get a soldier asked if he or she is gay. Many of those who have answered the question truthfully were outed by military medical personnel, a violation of doctor-patient confidentiality, and discharged.

Current estimates indicate that almost 65,000 gays and lesbians serve in the various branches of the U.S. armed forces, including the Reserves and the National Guard. More than half are on active duty, which includes the combat theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Close to 130 other countries—including Great Britain, Canada, Australia and Israel—allow gays and lesbians in their militaries. Some, in the cases of English and Australian soldiers stationed in Iraq, have served openly in command positions alongside American soldiers.

The Government Accountability Office recently revealed that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has cost the military more than $200 million since it was first implemented in 1993.

In an interview, Bishop said he was pleasantly surprised at the reaction to his editorial.

"I had assumed that some people might make some unkind remarks about it,” he said. “But there have been none so far. I have, however, received lots of lovely notes from former gay and lesbians sailors and soldiers."

Bishop, a straight man with a wife and children, has taught philosophy at West Point for the past ten years. He said the greatest influence on his thinking regarding Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been John Stuart Mills’ slim treatise "On Liberty."

"I applied his ‘harm to others principle’—that government can only limit individual liberty when preventing a person’s ability to harm others,” Bishop said. “It takes very little imagination to understand that this policy requires some people to suffer. This is an unnecessary pain our government inflicts on its citizens by limiting their liberty to serve or contribute to their own defense.”

"How can we justify this infringement of liberty? When we say ‘all men are created equal’ does all really mean all?" Bishop added.

Because of possible conflicts of interest, Bishop first cleared his essay with his boss at West Point and then the Army’s public affairs office. None objected to the content, according to Bishop. He first attempted to get it published with The New York Times and the Washington Post because he thought both newspapers might be more sympathetic. It was only after both rejected the piece did he turn to The Army Times, which published it almost immediately.

Although he said he’s hesitant to speak for anyone else, and that his editorial is solely his own opinion, he feels many people, especially the younger generation of soldiers, are comfortable with gays and lesbians moving openly in society.

"If 20 years ago someone would have said there would be a bill like Meehan’s in 2005, people would have laughed at them,” Bishop said. “I’m more rather than less encouraged that attitudes are changing for the better."

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