Aaron Belkin, expert on military and sexual minorities, at Hunter this fall
Recently transplanted from Santa Barbara, California to New York to teach in the political science department at Hunter College, Aaron Belkin has spent considerable time thinking big thoughts about sexy topics such as aerial coercion, strategic bombing, and coup risk. But his major area of inquiry is gays in the military, which led to his founding of the influential Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
This year alone, the Center published a study reporting that over the first 10 years of the Don’t Ask, Don’ Tell (DADT) policy—the most recent of a series of bans of gays and lesbians openly serving their country—244 military medical personnel were fired, it released a report showing that Don’t Ask cost twice as much as estimated by the federal Government Accountability Office––at least $363.8 million—and most recently, unearthed the damning Pentagon internal document classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Members of the Center’s board include C. Dixon Osburn, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group that advocates on behalf on gay and lesbian soldiers, and former Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, the highest-ranking military official to come out while in uniform.
The Center and Belkin walk a fine line in scrupulously avoiding partisan efforts and anti-military attitudes even as they play a lead role in challenging myths and inaccurate facts about this flashpoint in the culture wars.
Christopher Murray: Is the military inherently antagonistic to homosexuality?
Aaron Belkin: Interestingly, polls show that almost everyone in the military is personally comfortable around gays and lesbians. There is a terribly destructive peer pressure to pretend to be homophobic while in uniform, and that peer pressure is the cause of a lot of anti-gay violence. But underneath the performance, polls show that with the exception of a tiny minority, service members are in fact quite accepting of their gay and lesbian peers.
CM: What’s the current status of DADT and the movement to remove it?
AB: The polls are quite decisive. About two-thirds of the public, including majorities of Republicans as well as regular churchgoers, favor repeal. An astounding 91 percent of young adults favor repeal according to Gallup. Congress, however, is not listening to the public in this case. Many Democrats think that coming out in favor of repeal would make them look weak on defense, while Republicans appear to be catering to their traditional base. So, despite public opinion, there is a political stalemate, at least for now.
CM: How is DADT important to the LGBT community at large?
AB: There are two things to consider. On a personal or practical level, firing someone can take a devastating psychological or professional toll. Many gays and lesbians who are fired simply move on to another job. But some take years to recover. And some never do. The same should be said by the way, about the impact of being forced to live in the closet. On a more symbolic level, and without in any way minimizing the suffering of those who are fired, I would argue that perhaps the most critical impact of the gay ban is its impact on the meaning of American citizenship. In many different societies, going back centuries, the marker of a first-class citizen has always been the right to enter into contracts like marriage and the right to serve in the military.
Whether one is pro-military or anti-military, it is important to ask what it means for American citizenship when moral gatekeepers get to use law, regulation, and policy to decide who is a first-class citizen and who is not. That is something that all people, gay and straight, might consider.
CM: Is there a link between gays in the military as an issue and gay marriage?
AB: The public is in a very different place on these two issues. One similarity, though, is that in both cases, proponents of discrimination use bad social science to try to conceal moral arguments. In the military case, proponents claim that lifting the ban would undermine unit cohesion. But what they really feel, but are hesitant to say in public, has a lot more to do with morality than unit cohesion.
In the marriage case, proponents [of discrimination] claim that marriage equality would be bad for kids and would increase divorce rates. Again, however, what they really feel has a lot more to do with morality than with social scientific claims.
CM: Is there a gender differential to DADT?
AB: This is a very tough question to answer. Women make up about 30 percent of all discharges under the gay ban, even though only about 15 percent of the military is female. Does this mean that the gay ban is actually a tool that misogynists can use to target women? Or does it mean that women in the military are more likely to be lesbians than men are likely to be gay, and hence statistically more likely to be discharged. There’s evidence, and probably some truth, to both claims.
CM: Is this an issue than impacts trans people at all?
AB: There are of course transgendered persons serving in the military today. The regulations targeting them are much broader than Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I’ll have more to say about transgendered service next year, as my institute is now engaging in the first-ever social science research project on this topic.
CM: What is it like to speak about gays in the military at places like West Point?
AB: Perhaps the most moving moment was after one of my lectures there, the entire room cleared except for one young cadet. He looked to his left and then to his right to make sure that no one else was in the room. And then he walked briskly up to me and said, “Thank you for your service on this issue. I wish I could be of more help.” And then he ran away. My guess is that he may have been having a hard time and needed some help, but didn’t know how or where to get it.
CM: When will DADT be changed as a policy, in your opinion, and what will be the outcome?
AB: Change is inevitable, because when the polls show that two-thirds of the public, and 91 percent of young adults, believe in repeal, then it is clear that Congress cannot ignore the will of the people forever. That said, depending on the partisan balance in Congress and the ideological makeup of the courts, change could take a very long time. Think of the gap between the court’s articulation of the separate-but-equal doctrine in the 19th century and LBJ’s civil rights legislation. The ban could end next year, but change also might take a generation or more.