Over the last couple of days, I have been contemplating the end of the federal government’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. With DADT gone, anyone who otherwise qualifies to be in the military may now join any branch without concern regarding the enlistee’s sexuality. The United States of America has taken a step forward with the change, but I must admit, as happy as I am about this fact, I’m feeling a bit ambivalent about the celebration.
Since the days when Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin was discharged for sodomy from the Continental Army in 1778, American military policy regarding gays has consistently banned homosexuality among its soldiers, but the structure of that disapproval has changed many times, most often in the 20th Century. During World War II, the psychiatric component of the military evaluation began, at which time homosexuality was considered a psychopathology. Thereafter, several categories of discharges were established, such as the blue discharge which was neither honorable nor dishonorable, although it held a stigma in society after the individual left the military. In 1942, if an individual was not found to have sexual contact prior to the court martial, they were given an undesirable discharge. A dishonorable discharge was given to those who had sexual contact with individuals of the same gender. General discharges were also offered to some servicemembers. Interestingly enough, the Crittendon Report in 1957 determined that gay people did not pose a security risk, but that the anit-gay policies should remain because homosexuality was “evil.”
When DADT began on December 21, 1993, there was a mix of hope and disappointment in President Bill Clinton’s choice to go this route. Although he promised to be the president for all American citizens, his initial attempt to eliminate the gay ban in the military was shot down by Congress. He was advised that full permission for gay and lesbian individuals to serve in the military was unthinkable. He chose to establish a policy of “ignorance is bliss” instead. I know many people were happy with this policy, but it seemed that any codified ignorance would not be a good thing. I mean, what did the policy really do?
Prior to DADT, a servicemember could not openly state that he or she was gay. The soldier could not openly date a partner, be seen in public holding hands with an individual of the same gender, and they could be asked whether he or she was gay. If the soldier answered, “Yes,” then court-martial proceedings ensued, after which the soldier was ceremoniously removed from the military.
After DADT, the same things could happen, except the military was not allowed to ask the question in the first place. If the soldier admitted to being homosexual, the same process began as before DADT. Ask many soldiers, such as Lt. Daniel Choi, if there was any difference. DADT was hailed as a step forward toward full equality for Americans, and I suppose at some level, it was.
Here’s my issue: I have known family and friends who served in the military who are gay; one of whom served during World War II. He was a decorated veteran and served honorably for several years overseas. The thought that had he served during DADT and it became known he was gay, the same thing that would have happened to him during WWII, would have happened to him during the 1990s as well if his superiors discovered he was homosexual. The only difference is that during DADT, no one would have asked in the first place. The bottom line is that gay folk were personae non grata in the military until yesterday.
Something has changed now, of course. Gay people can enlist in the military as they can in many western countries, such as England, Canada, Spain and Italy. They can serve beside their straight counterparts and all of them will be called soldiers… sort of. For a while, at least, we know that because we are neither gender blind nor sexuality blind, these soldiers will continue to be called gay soldiers and lesbian soldiers among the rank-and-file and in the country as a whole. The other salient thought is that married and registered domestic-partnered gay soldiers, will have no benefits for their spouses because of the Defense of Marriage Act.
We should call this event as it is: Another step forward. It is not the end of the journey for our service members who happen to be gay. A group of our soldiers will know they cannot support their spouses with health insurance, death benefits, or be ceremonially recognized if they should die as the spouses of straight soldiers are. They will give the same service, but not have the same benefits. This is not equality.
So, as we celebrate this movement forward, let us stay aware that until full equality is achieved, work still must be done to ensure our American soldiers… all our American soldiers… are treated equally.