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August 2000

Homophobia in the U.S. Military
"Donít Ask; Donít Tell" Ė Six Years Later
by Harold Jordan
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Private First Class Barry Winchell

In June of 2000, 30 members of Congress sent a letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen calling the Pentagonís failure to curb harassment "disgraceful." It accused the general of tolerating an anti-gay climate. The letter also criticized the practice of the Navy and Air Force in trying to recoup from GIs the cost associated with training service members who are later discharged for homosexuality. Senators John Kerry (MA) and Max Cleland (GA), a former head of the Veterans Administration, have also sent letters to President Clinton criticizing the action (inaction) of military commanders.

"I honestly knew that the Army did not accept homosexuals in the military, but I never thought that someone could die for being gay."

- former Private Javier Torres

In the aftermath of the Winchell murder, the Armyís Inspector General (IG) office was assigned to investigate the climate on base and the performance of base leadership. Its report, released on July 21, 2000, concluded that while some members of Winchellís unit held anti-gay views, especially his sergeant, the 101st Airborne Division does not suffer from an unacceptable degree of homophobia. The report states that few soldiers reported harassment to the command; when they did, the command acted responsibly. Senior leadership was exonerated, including that of General Robert Clark, the former base commander and now vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to General Clark, "There is not, nor has there ever been during my time here, a climate of homophobia on base."

Former Private Javier Torres, who came out of the closet after Winchellís murder, draws a different conclusion: "I honestly knew that the Army did not accept homosexuals in the military, but I never thought that someone could die for being gay."

A Failed Policy

The goal of the "Donít Ask; Donít Tell" policy, now in its sixth year, was never to eliminate all gays and lesbians from the military. Military commanders know that they are indispensable.

"Donít Ask; Donít Tell" entered the scene with the promise by the Clinton Administration that it would ease some of the pressure and burden placed on lesbian and gay service members. At the time it was announced, the policy was said by its proponents to be an "honorable compromise," one that balanced the privacy needs of service members, including heterosexuals, with the need for military readiness and unit cohesion.

Underneath this policy lies a military institution that is unwilling to protect the basic human and civil rights of its members.

Under the policy, lesbian and gay service members are supposed to be allowed to serve as long as they donít "do anything" and stay quiet. The standard for "doing anything" is very broad and subjective. It includes statements that one is gay, attempts to marry a person of the same gender, sexual acts, or any activity a "reasonable person" might consider to be undertaken for the purpose of sexual gratification.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an independent (non-military) legal aid and watchdog organization that assists service members at risk under the militaryís anti-gay policies and practices, issued its Sixth Annual Report on "Donít Ask; Donít Tell; Donít Pursue; Donít Harass" on March 9, 2000. The report, which covers the period February 15, 1999 to February 15, 2000, identifies the following trends:

  • Anti-gay harassment has increased. The incidence of assaults, death threats and verbal gay bashing has more than doubled in the past year.

  • Reports of asking and pursuing are way up.

  • There is a serious lack of accountability. There have been no sanctions for violations of the policyís anti-harassment and anti-pursuit provisions in the six years it has been in effect.

  • There are serious breakdowns in confidentiality, especially when it comes to doctors and psychologists. For example, Air Force investigators have been instructed to interrogate the family and friends of service members suspected of homosexual activity.

  • Women are more likely to be discharged for homosexuality than men. Women make up 14 % of the force, but receive 31% of gay discharges. This is consistent with the stereotype held by many service men that women who join the military are whores, lesbians or husband-hunters.

  • Criminal prosecutions of gay service members are down, as more commanders exercise the option of discharging alleged lesbian and gay service members.

  • Growing numbers of service members have tried to get out the services in order to escape harassment by identifying themselves to military officials as being gay.
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