Declining Expulsions

Heightened combat seems to keep gay troops in Iraq

In 1993, Bill Clinton retreated from his campaign promise to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. The “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy that emerged was portrayed as a compromise by the administration. Men and women in the armed forces would not be asked about their sexual orientation, but could not serve openly, or engage in “homosexual conduct.”

Yet far from decreasing bigotry against gays, the policy led to a surge in anti-gay harassment. Expulsions of gays skyrocketed from 617 in 1994 to 1,273 by 2001. The policy created a dense web of hypocrisy, inconsistency, and recrimination. Enforcement was left to the discretion of individual commanders.

Now, as the United States military faces ongoing combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, expulsions of gays and lesbians in service have plummeted by 39 percent. From a high of 1,273 expulsions in 2001, the number fell to 906 in 2002, and to 787 in 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

This fits a historical pattern. “Gay discharge numbers have dropped every time America has entered a war,” according to a recent report by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an advocacy group for gay and lesbian troops. “This happened during the first Gulf War, and can be traced as far back as Vietnam, Korea, and World War II,” said Steve Ralls, director of communication for SLDN.

Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, a think tank based at the University of California at Santa Barbara that has studied the effects of out gay troops on combat units’ morale, suggested that the declining expulsions are sometimes produced by “changes in regulation and sometimes changes in practice.”

While expulsions may be down, however, incidents of homophobic abuse are still occurring. Mike Hoffman, a Marine who just returned from service in Iraq, spoke about the issue after coming to a New York conference of the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) at Hunter College on April 3. Hoffman, who is straight, is now a civilian and is a member of an anti-war group.

“The military itself is a very dangerous place to be gay,” said Hoffman. He recalled how he identified a disturbing pattern during his basic training. “There was someone who was rumored to be gay. I just remember how everyone was treating him. He was treated as a leper—people kept their distance.”

Recently, activists from the Columbia Antiwar Coalition, a part of CAN, confronted military recruiters on campus, both to show opposition to the occupation, and to highlight the military’s discrimination against gays.

Ralls pointed out that even as expulsions decrease, requests for assistance from active duty gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors and Marines, including reservists, have increased from 649 in the year before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, to 913 in 2002 and 1,000 in 2003.

The uneven and ambiguous enforcement of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—with the military maintaining a culture of homophobia while gay and lesbian troops are deployed into combat—has wide ranging effects. Most immediately, the partners of gays and lesbians deployed overseas also face discrimination while having to maintain secrecy about thir relationships. “The partner does not have the right to go to the military shopping center to buy groceries, or the ability to communicate honestly,” said Ralls. “Servicemembers suspected of being gay have had their e-mails and phone calls monitored,” he added.

There are competing explanations for the recent decline in expulsions. In a recent op-ed in the Army Times, Jeff Cleghorn argued that more gays are choosing to remain in the service to “do their patriotic duty.” Belkin said that, “gay soldiers are very loyal to their peers, loyal to their buddies.”

Yet morale in the military has declined in the face of a committed Iraqi resistance, extensions of soldiers’ tours of duty, and a range of Pentagon cuts to benefits for soldiers and their families. In light of the ongoing combat, the military also faces a stark shortage of manpower.

“When they need the bodies, they’re willing to overlook a lot of things,” said Mike Hoffman. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about people saying they’re gay, and commanders ignoring it. He also noted that the military is now “keeping people who pop on drug tests.”

Thomas Barton, a mental health professional at Bellevue Hopsital, who circulates an online anti-war newsletter called G.I. Special, made a useful historical observation. “When there are labor shortages during wartime, oppressed groups will be allowed in, but afterwards discrimination can skyrocket,” said Barton, who was also active in the movement against the Vietnam War. “There were reports from the Vietnam War of soldiers who were lovers in the field, without challenge,” Barton added.

While the military claims that allowing gays to serve openly would disrupt morale and troop cohesion, many see this as a smokescreen. The military does rely on strict discipline, but the ban on gays serving openly plays a role in upholding institutionalized homophobia more broadly. The policy is maintained even though a recent Gallup poll showed that 79 percent of Americans favor allowing gays to serve openly, an all-time high.

Belkin called the policy “a line in the sand” that in fact furthers prejudice against gays throughout society. He argued that “people who support discrimination know that if the ban is lifted all sorts of other antigay policies would be that much more difficult to defend.”

Steve Ralls made a related point. “The military ban is one of the last federal laws that not only permit, but authorize discrimination against gay and lesbian people,” he said.

With the far right clamoring for a ban on gay marriage, it seems unlikely that military leaders would openly reconsider the ban. As Barton points out “the issue is near and dear to Bush’s base.” And with John Kerry cuddling up to the military establishing, declaring his commitment to the occupation of Iraq and calling his past criticisms of the Vietnam War “excessive,” even a Clinton-style promise to end discrimination in the armed services might be too much to expect.

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