Experts debate whether personnel shortages or shifting social focus is to account
For the third year in a row the number of service members discharged from all branches of the U.S. military for violating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (DADT) has decreased, the Pentagon reported on February 11.
Gay rights advocates immediately hailed the report as proof that gay soldiers serving openly do not undermine unit cohesion, the main argument used by those in favor of the ban against gays and lesbians serving in the military. Nevertheless, say gay advocates, given the need for experienced soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terror, the military is unwilling to lose valuable trained troops who happen to be gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors and marines.
“The fact is that gays and lesbians don’t harm unit cohesion. These numbers prove that because at a time when you need unit cohesion the most we see these discharges going down,” Kathi Westcott said, a policy expert at the Service Members Legal Defense Network, an organization that provides support to gay military personnel.
“What [the numbers on discharges] suggest is that the Pentagon knows lifting the ban won’t degrade unit cohesion,” said Aaron Belkin, the director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “There’s no way the numbers would go down now if unit cohesion was suffering.”
Belkin also suggested another reason for the decreasing number of discharged gay service members might be less directly related to a need for trained personnel, than the fact that commanding officers, normally responsible for processing claims about a service members homosexuality, might very well be preoccupied with more pressing matters, like combat operations.
In 1993, when Clinton proposed ending the military’s ban, a furious Congress intervened, making the ban into a federal law rather than a defense department regulation famously symbolized by the World War Two-era question posed to new recruits: “Are you a homosexual?”
The measure, approved by a veto-proof majority in the House and Senate stated that “homosexual conduct is incompatible with military service” and that homosexual conduct is defined as any statement, act or marriage indicating a person is attracted to members of their own gender. Congress authorized the removal of the homosexual question, but provided the secretary of defense with the authority to reinstate it.
Soon after Congress took action, the defense department altered its own regulations. New members of the military would not be asked if they were gay, and commanders were ordered to stop investigating the sexuality of their troops.
This construct of law and regulations was officially called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Harass, Don’t Pursue, referred to now as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
The secretary of defense can at any time change the regulation by which a gay soldier’s sexuality is investigated. As it continues to stand, gays and lesbians have no legal right to serve in the U.S. military.
This past year, only 653 service members were discharged for violating DADT, down from a 2001 high of 1227. According to the defense department, 325 soldiers, 177 sailors, 92 Air Force personnel and 59 marines were discharged in 2004.
“These numbers are important in context because they’re down in a time of need. Historically, gay discharges have gone down in a time of crisis like Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War,” Westcott said. “We know of many gay soldiers serving openly in Iraq right now. Obviously, many commanders don’t feel that gays and lesbians under them don’t interfere with unit morale.”
However, necessity does not always keep gay soldiers immune from “separation,” as the military calls it. At a time when the U.S. military has acknowledged a lack of Arabic, Farsi linguists and translators, SLDN has publicized the cases of 26 language experts discharged for being gay since 1998.
But if these latest numbers indicate there is a place in the U.S. military where gays and lesbians are now welcome, or at least tolerated, the few individuals in the position to know where they serve aren’t willing to speculate. Is there someplace in the military where being gay just isn’t controversial?
Several members on the Senate and House’s armed services committees did not return telephone calls seeking comment. A spokesperson in Michigan Democrat Senator Carl Levin’s office said the Pentagon provided no information or analysis regarding the discharges.
Rep. Martin Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, did release a written statement. “The recent decrease in discharges under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell indicates that more commanders understand that they can not afford to lose qualified service members for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability or willingness to serve our country,” Meehan said.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative personnel advocacy group, declared the “necessity” explanation—that the armed forces are so desperate for manpower they’re willing to overlook a service member’s sexuality—an “urban legend.” The center’s official policy is that DADT should be rescinded in favor of the military’s earlier prohibition on gays and lesbians when recruits were directly asked if they were gay.
“Fewer people are choosing to join the military these days, for whatever reason, and similarly fewer homosexuals are joining as well,” said Donnelly. “Even the service academies have lowering enrollment.”
She said fewer people in the services meant there are fewer gays and lesbians to be discharged.
A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Joseph Richard, suggested a similar explanation for the fewer discharges. “It could be people aren’t telling as much, or fewer gays are enlisting, or it might be the result of the entire size of U.S. forces being generally reduced,” said Richard, who even suggested that after several years of extensive discharges, there might be fewer gays and lesbians serving.
There is no evidence on how many gays and lesbians join the military each year. A recent study by the Urban Institute estimated there are 36,000 gays and lesbians on active duty, the number growing to 65,000 if the Reserves and National Guard are included.
Several officers in the Marines and Army—at least one of whom has served in a combat infantry unit in Iraq—and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there have always been, and still are, commanders who tolerate gay soldiers in their units. They went on to say that about 80 percent of discharges result in a soldier announcing their sexuality to a commanding officer, but until that happens most officers won’t go out of their way to investigate a soldier’s sexual orientation.
One of the plaintiffs represented in SLDN’s recent suit to overturn DADT, Jennifer Kopfstein, a 1999 Naval Academy graduate, said she served openly as a lesbian for two years before she told her commanding officer. “I was tired of lying and refused to do it anymore,” she said.
Kopfstein, who spent six months on a ship as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in the Afghanistan theater, said her commander purposely delayed her discharge by asking for a thorough investigation that took almost a year, and later testified on her behalf.
Westcott said details regarding the duties, rank and location of discharged gays and lesbians are released only after laborious Freedom of Information Act requests go through a tedious process at the defense department. The specifics regarding the 2004 discharge numbers were ready in October, but had not been released as of press time.
Until then, those in the gay community involved in the fight to overturn DADT are taking these numbers as a good sign.
Marty Meekins, a lawyer at White and Case, who now represents the Log Cabin Republicans in their suit to overturn DADT, said the Pentagon’s latest numbers bolstered their arguments.
“One of the things we allege is that unit cohesion is not affected by gays and lesbians,” he said. “If it were really important, there should be an equal number of discharges this year.”
The varying number of discharges were the result of an arbitrarily, and unfairly, enforced policy, Meekins added.
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