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August 2000

Homophobia in the US Military
"Donít Ask; Donít Tell"
* Ė Six Years Later
by Harold Jordan

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Private First Class Barry Winchell

The murder of a gay soldier has brought to light a disturbing pattern of harassment and poor leadership. Is the military serious about stopping hate crime?

AT A GLANCE: Facts about Military Homophobia

  • Anti-gay harassment has been on the rise.
  • Service members who harass or improperly investigate gay service members are rarely held accountable.
  • The military has never committed its resources to creating an atmosphere free of homophobia.
  • "Don't Ask; Don't Tell" has created new dangers for lesbian and gay service members.
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July 4th marked the first anniversary of the violent death of Pfc. Barry Winchell at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Winchell, a young gay soldier and a member of the Armyís 101st Airborne Division (the "Screaming Eagles"), was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by two fellow soldiers as he slept. So severe was the beating Ė Winchellís head was swollen and his eyes were completely black Ė that his corpse was almost unrecognizable to his mother. Two soldiers were later convicted of crimes related to his murder.

This anniversary has been marked by another troubling event: the release of an Army Inspector Generalís report which largely exonerates military leadership in its handling of homophobia at Fort Campbell.

This case, perhaps more than any other single incident, has brought new attention to the mistreatment of gay and lesbian service members (and to others who are alleged to be gay) in todayís military. Most of that attention has focused on the policy known as "Donít Ask; Donít Tell." Among the questions being asked are these: Is this situation an aberration? Is the militaryís policy itself flawed or is it simply not being implemented?

There can be little doubt that "Donít Ask; Donít Tell," which has been in effect for six years, has had disastrous consequences for the lives of many service members. Yet the problems didnít start and donít end there. "Donít Ask; Donít Tell" has created new uncertainties and risks for service members compared to the preexisting ban. Underneath this policy lies a military institution that is unwilling to protect the basic human and civil rights of its members.

A Hostile Climate?

Official complaints are rare because there is no safe recourse.

While violent beatings resulting in death may not be the typical scenario for homophobic behavior in the armed forces, much else about the Winchell case Ė the circumstances leading up to the murder and its aftermath Ė reveals a pattern that is all too common. Many service members who are suspected of being gay face everyday harassment that is condoned by the leadership. Official complaints are rare because there is no safe recourse.

Barry Winchellís beating death had been proceeded by at least four months of taunting, name-calling, rumor-mongering, and threats. Two different inquiries into his private life had been undertaken by two sergeants in his command. These inquires were based on reports that he had been given a ride to a civilian area in the vicinity of a gay bar. At one point in the investigation, Winchell was asked whether he was gay; he said "no."

Several soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell have reported an increase in the harassment of gays and lesbians on base in the weeks following the murder. According to one report, soldiers were led in anti-gay chants during exercises. One chant reportedly used during a five-mile run was, "Faggot, faggot down the street; shoot him, shoot him ,Ďtil he retreats." Some of the graffiti that appeared on base during that period included a picture of a baseball bat with the inscription "Fag Whacker" and slogans such as "One fag down; More to go" and "A fag free army."

Fort Campbell gives out more discharges for "homosexuality" than any other US military installation in the world. In 1999, 120 soldiers were discharged for this reason, compared to 6 in 1998. Some service members come forward and identify themselves as gay because they fear remaining in the military, while others are involuntarily given the boot. Battalion Commander Kent Schweikert has stated that the rise in gay discharges has nothing to do with the hostile climate on base. In his view, it is due to the fact that gay discharges provide an easy way out of the military, whether one is gay or not. This statement ignores the fact that service members discharged for "homosexuality," even those who receive good discharges, carry a permanent stigma on their military records, one that may have an impact on post-service employment.

"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 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.

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.

In considering the failures of the policy, it is important to recall the context in which it was adopted.

First, the adoption of the policy was accompanied by a Congressional finding that "the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability."

The Administration helped to establish a climate in which overtly anti-gay forces were strengthened. President Clinton made statements to the effect that concerns about protecting the privacy of straight service members had merit, and therefore the segregation of openly lesbian and gay service members might be warranted. Clinton Administration officials also put forth the "reasonable person" standard, subsequently adopted in the policy. The "reasonable person" standard has been especially problematic.

More Outside Scrutiny Needed

The military has never committed itself to creating an atmosphere free of homophobia. Homophobia is deeply ingrained in the military culture. Expressions of aggressive male heterosexuality are seen as motivating tools to get men to be aggressive warriors. They are also used as a way of controlling women in the ranks.

Open expressions of homophobic behavior are a consequence of a flawed policy, a failure to enforce its anti-harassment and anti-pursuit provisions, and an anti-gay culture inside the military. The partial lifting of the "ban" on joining the military has not been accompanied by a focus on the repressive conditions inside the military. If anything good has come of the revelations about homophobia at Fort Campbell it is that the inner workings of the military will be more closely scrutinized by the civilian public.

* The full title is "Donít Ask; Donít Tell; Donít Pursue; Donít Harass." Only recently did the Pentagon add "Donít Harass" to the name of the policy. In this article we use "Donít Ask; Donít Tell" to refer to the broader policy.

Links

Doug Ireland, "Search and Destroy," The Nation (July 10, 2000).

"Conduct Unbecoming: Donít Ask Donít Tell?" Ė ABC Nightline, 6/23/00. This is a highly informative report on the increase in homophobia inside the military in the year following a murder of a gay soldier a Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The transcript and video of the show are on the web.

Getting Help

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) is a national legal aid and watchdog organization that assists service members at risk under the militaryís anti-gay policies and practices. It produces a survival guide for lesbian and gay service members, available in print and on the web.
phone: 202/328-3244
e-mail: sldn@sldn.org
http://www.sldn.org

The National Lawyers Guildís Military Law Task Force publishes two items of special interest: "Military Policy on Homosexuality" and "Challenging Sexual Harassment in the Military." Military Law Task Force, National Lawyers Guild, 1168 Union, Suite 200, San Diego, CA 92101, phone: 619/233-1701.

About the Author

Harold Jordan coordinates the American Friends Service Committeeís National Youth and Militarism Program. You can reach him at youthmil@afsc.org.

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