Bigotry in the Military

Editorial, The New York Times

August 30, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

The Defense Department's new guidelines on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy may reduce some of the worse abuses against homosexuals in the military. But it does not cure the fundamental injustice of a policy that discriminates against homosexuals by forcing them to hide their sexual orientation by punishing the truthful with expulsion.

Last year, the department issued a report showing that the number of gay soldiers being forces out of the military had risen sharply since adoption of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in 1994. That policy was a compromise between the White House, which wanted to end all discrimination and the military who wanted to continue the long-standing ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. Under the compromise, openly gay people are still barred from the armed services. But they are allowed to serve if they do not talk openly about their sexual orientation, and commanders are barred from asking troops if they are gay.

The compromise policy was supposed to increase privacy and end witch hunts. Yet the data show that the climate remains as hostile to gay military personnel as ever, if not more so. Last year, 1,145 service members were discharged for homosexuality, compared with 997 in 1997 and 617 in 1994. Worse, harassment seems not to have diminished. In July a soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky., was beaten to death with a baseball bat, allegedly because he was gay.

The new guidelines would require that all military personnel receive anti-harassment training in boot camp and throughout their careers. Special training would be given to commanders and law enforcement officers. The guidelines recommend that military lawyers consult with senior legal officers at headquarters before initiating investigations into allegations of homosexuality.

In the very few cases where recoupment of military benefits is at issue, investigations into a service member's sexual orientation would require approval from the highest levels of the service. The guidelines would also require that inspectors general in each branch of the armed services review whether commanders and investigators are being trained properly.

More training clearly is needed at all levels. In some cases, victims who report anti-gay harassment have found themselves being investigated and subsequently drummed out of the service rather than the harassers. The new guidelines remind commanding officers that they are not to take this attack-the-victim approach, a glaring sign of how poorly some commanders have carried out the policy.

But better training will not prevent absurd outcomes. The case of Steve May, a Republican state legislator in Arizona, shows how irrational the policy is. Mr. May, who is gay, made reference to his own sexual orientation while debating a bill in the Arizona House dealing with health insurance benefits for domestic partners. He also happens to be an officer in the Army Reserve. He is now under investigation and may be discharged from the military for publicly revealing his homosexuality.

Defense Secretary William Cohen has said that the policy on homosexuals in the military will be carried out fairly and that harassment will not be tolerated. But the policy, by labelling homosexuals an unacceptable threat to order and discipline, reinforces anti-gay hatreds that lead to harassment and violence. The ill-conceived "don't ask, don't tell" policy was supposed to insure that gay soldiers would be treated more humanely. The record after five years shows that the policy is not protecting qualified individuals from being forced out. Better guidelines will not improve a policy that at its core tolerates and promotes bigotry.