Don’t Ask, Because You Already Know

[7 February 2011]

By Michael Abernethy

So, there are going to be gays and lesbians in the United States Armed Services. Actually, there have always been gays and lesbians in America’s armed forces, but now, they can serve openly. Well, maybe not now, but soon. Real soon. Just as soon as all the kinks are worked out. We wouldn’t want to traumatize the small percentage of soldiers who haven’t realized before now that some of their colleagues were LGBT, all this time.

The details of the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) and the long battle over the role of LGB personnel in the armed forces have been well-scrutinized in the press, and many continue to argue about President Obama’s push to get this piece of his agenda through Congress before the Republican take-over of the Senate in 2011. When this is combined with Vice-President Biden’s statement that gay marriage is “inevitable”, the highest ranking US government official to make such a declaration, it would seem that things are progressing for the LGBT community in the US.

The caveat is that those LGB personnel previously discharged who want to re-enlist and those currently serving, waiting to come out, will have to wait a little longer, although no one is quite sure how long that will be. What’s more, there is no “T” in the “LGBT”, because transsexuals and non-gender conforming persons aren’t included in the repeal. Given these shortcomings, it’s easy to be torn on the repeal: is the repeal a political gesture designed to appease a disgruntled constituency? or is it a blessing and we should be patient with these baby steps? It’s easy to adopt a half-empty attitude, but considering that we haven’t even been allowed to drink before now, half a glass will go down nicely. For now.

For those still apprehensive or down-right opposed to gay personnel serving openly (John McCain), perhaps a little perspective will provide a better understanding of how allowing LGBT persons to serve will affect America’s armed forces. Gay soldiers are nothing new. Every newspaper in the country seemed to find its own local gay or lesbian soldier in reporting the struggle to repeal DADT. Many spoke of serving openly without problem, with the silent approval of superiors—a sort of “Don’t Ask, Because You Already Know” arrangement—while others spoke of the heartache that accompanied being booted from their chosen professions. Their stories covered each military conflict from World War II and beyond. That doesn’t mean there weren’t gay soldiers before WWII; it’s just that none are still alive to interviewed—and perhaps those still alive are not willing.

In fact, the first American soldier driven from the military for homosexual behavior was Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin, who was kicked out of the Continental Army in 1778 for committing acts of sodomy with Private John Monhart, as told by Randy Shilts in his book Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military. (Nothing is known of Monhart’s fate, but I imagine him opening the country’s first gay pub, Yanks.) Ironically, Shilts reports, as Enslin was being prosecuted for his offenses, the rest of the troops were going through drills with Baron VonSteuben, a German general brought in to train the troops at Valley Forge. His methods were so successful that he was promoted to Major General and his model of training adopted throughout the army. Every one overlooked his equally-efficient skill in seducing younger men, except the German army, which had already kicked him out, making him available to come over to America and whip its boys into shape.

Looking back, history is full of gay soldiers, the most notable being one of the greatest warriors in the history of testosterone-driven battles over land or bragging rights. Alexander III of Macedonia, known among Colin Farrell groupies and text-book writers as Alexander the Great, has a gay streak so wide that history scholars couldn’t possibly ignore it, although it probably isn’t mentioned in your daughter’s eighth grade world history class. In another ironic twist, Alex is responsible for slaying the world’s first and only known gay army, The Sacred Band of Thebes, which consisted of soldiers and their male lovers, using the logic that the men would fight harder to protect their loved ones. Apparently, they did, as the Sacred Band of Thebes went undefeated for 30 years until they met up with Alexander. Possibly, they were too star-struck by the world’s greatest queer to focus on the battle at hand.

Countless are the heads of state who have been reported to be gay or lesbian, presumably putting a homosexual in charge of that country’s military forces. Still, certain leaders, such as Alexander, have established themselves not just as heads of state, but also as warriors and, on the side, big ole queers. It has long been accepted that Richard the Lionhearted was gay, as documented in The Lion in Winter (and you know Katherine Hepburn wouldn’t lie to us). Likewise, it is widely-held that Ashikaga Yoshimitsu of Japan was gay. For those not familiar with Yoshimitsu’s legacy, he was the third shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate during the 14th century which, for Westerners, means that he was head honcho and could kick some serious ass when needed. Further, such well-known soldiers as T. H. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, Bernard Marshall of the Marshall Plan, and the Marquis de Lafayette are just a few of the famous military men who liked to enjoy the pleasures of same-sex dalliances.

In more recent years, Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star winner who served three tours in Vietnam, gained fame and the cover of Time for fighting the military’s policy on homosexuality in the ‘70s. Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer was also a Bronze Star winner when she was honorably discharged in 1992 for revealing she was a lesbian. Cammermeyer fought too, with more success. Two years later, Judge Thomas Zillly reinstated Cammermeyer, who retired from the Navy a few years later with 31 years of service. Oh, Zilly also declared the military’s ban on allowing gays and lesbians to serve unconstitutional, which helped provide rationale for the whole DADT policy. More irony. The most famous recent soldier removed from duty has been Lt. Dan Choi, who proudly re-enlisted the first minute it became legal for him to do so.

Still, the actions of gay and lesbian soldiers past haven’t convinced some that allowing gays and lesbians to serve won’t cause major disruptions to America’s military readiness. First, let’s look at the logic here; if gays and lesbians really loved their country, they wouldn’t want to serve in its military? They left that little addendum out of the social studies lessons. Realistically, though, there isn’t going to be a huge rush of LGBT persons signing up. It has nothing to do with patriotism - after all, most straight youths don’t enlist. Those that do sign up know what they are getting into and that mauve bed ruffles aren’t allowed.

Second, other armies throughout the world have successfully integrated gay and lesbian soldiers into their forces. Thirty such armies, including the UK, Canada, Israel, Germany, South Africa and Sweden. In fact, the U. S. Government Accountability Office did a study of these armies in the early ‘90s and determined that allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly did no damage to the military and officers reported no problems. The GAO included in its study police and fire departments in the US that had LGBT personnel (reported in “What Does the Empirical Research Say about the Impact of Openly Gay Service on the Military?” at PalmCenter.org).

This is appropriate, since the organization that most resembles the military is the police. LGBT police have been out and proud for decades, now (depending on the part of the country), even marching in uniform in gay pride events. There are several organizations for LGBT officers and police personnel, among them Out to Protect, Protect and Defend, and TCOPS, the Transgender Community of Police and Sheriffs. Further, there is the National EMS and Firefighters Pride Alliance, which includes “Firefighters of all ranks, Emergency Medical Technicians, Paramedics, Critical Care Transport Crews, Air Ambulance Crews, Dispatchers, Cadets and Explorers.” If one of the fire station Dalmatians turned out to be gay, he or she would probably qualify for membership, as well. 

Still, there have been some problems—and a few lawsuits. Then, the same could be said for straight officers. According to David Alan Sklansky in Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, there is no way to accurately determine the number of LGBT police personnel, as some officers, particularly gay males, choose to keep their sexual identity private in the workplace, as a result of “white, male, heterosexual ethos” that still dominates many police units. However, this dominant machismo will likely decrease with time, as more officers come out and more out officers rise through the ranks. (“Not Your Father’s Police Department: Making Sense of the New Demographics of Law Enforcement”, Spring 2006)

Take, for instance, Lupe Valdez of Dallas, a veteran officer elected Sheriff in Dallas in 2004. Valdez didn’t discuss her sexuality during the campaign, as it wasn’t germane to her qualifications, but she did not hesitate to acknowledge that she is a lesbian.  There’s also Sharon Lubinski, the country’s second female and first openly gay U. S. Marshall, appointed in 2009, and William Pace, sworn-in as Police Chief of Randolph, Massachusetts, with his partner at his side this past summer. (While not gay himself, San Antonio’s Police Chief William McManus was Grand Marshall at San Antonio’s Gay Pride Parade last year, which sends a clear message to other officers as to what his office’s position is concerning the LGBT community.)

With the advancement and recruitment of LGBT officers, and ultimately LGBT soldiers, we can hopefully reach a point of acceptance that is seen in the UK. A survey of the most LGBT-friendly workplaces in the UK listed 11 police departments in the top 50. The Hampshire Constabulary was the second most gay-friendly workplace in the country, behind IBM. (“Five Police Forces are Among the Best Employers for Gay Workers” TheTimes, 13 January, 2010)

What’s more, a 2000 report by the Ministry of Defense determined that allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly had been a “solid achievement”. The report also noted that there had been no reported cases of harassment, no inappropriate dalliances, no mauve bed ruffles. In fact, the gay and lesbian soldiers were acting like—could it be?—soldiers. Among straight soldiers, the report noted a “marked lack of reaction” (reported in “The Effects of Including Gay and Lesbian Soldiers in the British Armed Forces” at PalmCenter.org).

So, LGBT soldiers serve openly and without incident in armies throughout the world, and LGBT soldiers and fire fighters serve openly and without incident throughout the world, including the United States. Of course, some LGBT military personnel will mess up, do stupid things, and get thrown to the curb, to unleash their dysfunction on the rest of us, just like some of their straight counterparts have done countless times.

The Armed Forces of the United States is touted as the finest fighting force on the planet, one of the most efficient, skilled organizations to have ever existed. Yet, some would have us believe it can’t pull off what the army of South Africa did successfully 12 years ago. This is not to knock South Africa, but if a country in a definitively more homophobic region of the world can integrate gay and straight soldiers, shouldn’t America, land of tolerance and diversity, be able to? 

In a few years, after brave and proud soldiers, gay and straight, have served together in combat and in peace, the nay-sayers will realize that Armageddon didn’t come, America didn’t fall to the likes of the Taliban because its soldiers were too busy getting pedicures, and the level of honor in serving as a United States soldier didn’t diminish one bit. The nay-sayers won’t admit any of this publically, of course. In time, they will become silent, just as LGBT soldiers were once forced to be. Won’t that be ironic?

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/135392-dont-ask-because-you-already-know/