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Gays in the Military - Seven Years Later

Friday, May 25, 2001Gays in the Military - Seven Years Later
Gays in the Military
E.A. Barrera,
{Espresso Newspaper, San Diego}
May 25, 2001

San Diego activist Herb King wasn’t sure he was gay when he joined the Army in 1940. A brilliant biologist out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he’d been recruited for officer training after his undergraduate thesis on compact emergency rations gained the attention of military brass.

“Most people my generation knew nothing about homosexuality. There was complete suppression,” said King. “I guess in my heart I knew who I was. I’d always been attracted to men. But at that time, it was considered a sickness. You tried to live your life in denial.”
King, who achieved the rank of Major, served in the army for five years — seeing action in North Africa and Italy under the 2nd Armored Division of General George Patton during World War II. Looking back on the years he served his country, King said he feels they were some of the best years of his life, though he never revealed who he was while he served, and the bitterness he holds over the way gays were treated then and now, still exists.

“I was a better officer because I was gay. I cared about the men in my command. Straight or gay, these men served bravely and many died for their country. How can anyone justify the abuse and harassment of people who fight and risk their lives, just because of their sexual orientation — a thing they have no control over?” asked King.

This June will mark the seventh anniversary of the Clinton Administration’s controversial decision to implement a revised policy on gays and lesbians serving in the United States military. Ostensibly intended to end the witch hunts on gay servicemembers, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” policy was developed as a compromise between the existing outright ban and the complete lifting of that ban many believed the Administration would deliver.
Under Article 125 of the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, it is against the law to be homosexual in the armed forces. This regulation was enacted in 1950, culminating a decade in which the military created regulations barring gays from service, citing reasons such as psychiatric unfitness and national security.

The irony of America’s post-war attitudes was that as the American population as a whole slowly increased their tolerance and support for gay civil rights, the military imposed harsher and stricter regulations concerning homosexual behavior within their ranks. As gay political strength was expanding, so too were the directives from both sides of the White House and Congress, making it harder for gays to serve in uniform.

The Stonewall rebellion of 1969, the election of Harvey Milk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and the coming-out of such congressional leaders as Barney Frank and Gerry Studds, marked the emergence of a gay political front increasing in its power. However, simultaneously, a stricter policy became standard practice during the 1970s and 1980s, demanding automatic expulsion for servicemembers deemed to be gay or engaging in homosexual activity.

“Homosexuality is incompatible with military service,” said W. Graham Claytor, a deputy Secretary of Defense under former President Jimmy Carter. His 1980 statement was based on the case of Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, an Air Force serviceman and Purple Heart recipient discharged from the military after it was learned he was gay. The Carter Administration determined that there was a detrimental effect to the “mutual trust, privacy, recruitment, and public acceptance” in allowing gays to serve in the military.

The Republican Reagan years saw a continuation of the Carter era policy banning gays and lesbians from military service. Between 1980 and 1990, the armed forces discharged an average of 1,500 service men and women

"Straight or gay, these men served bravely and many died for their country."per year, because of their sexual orientation. The rise of the AIDS epidemic during those years only added fuel to the arguments made by anti-gay political and military leaders. It was maintained that by allowing gays to serve in the military, the risk of exposure to AIDS would increase, and thus America’s defense readiness be undermined.

San Diego Democratic Club member Bob Pedrick, an openly gay former Navy Captain who served from 1961 through 1985, said that the climate under which gays served during those years was tough.

“It was always a game you had to play. I loved the Navy, but you had to pretend to be something you weren’t. There was a gay under-culture which had always existed, but as the years went on and the penalties became harsher, that under-culture grew tighter and more secretive,” said Pedrick. “The Navy knew that they had a large gay population. During one particular ‘Naval Investigative Services’ witch-hunt in 1976, one of my commanders commented that if they uncovered and removed all the people in the Navy who were gay, the Navy wouldn’t be able to function. But the climate was severe and it was one of the reasons I finally decided I’d had enough,” added Pedrick.

The anti-gay attitude fostered by both Washington D.C. and the military continued through the 1988 presidential contest. Both Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and Republican George Bush vowed to maintain the ban on gays in the military. But a report prepared for the Pentagon and made public by Congressman Studds that same year, cast serious doubt on previously held anti-gay dogma.

“Studies of homosexual veterans make clear that having a same gender or opposite gender orientation is unrelated to job performance in the same way as is being left-handed or right-handed,” stated the Pentagon study.
Four years later, a congressional study prepared by the General Accounting Office, estimated that persecution and replacement of gay military personnel had cost the American taxpayer $27 million in the single fiscal year of 1990.

Add to this the political fall-out from the Army’s involuntary discharge of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer. In May of 1992, Cammermeyer, a 26-year, decorated Vietnam veteran, was expelled from her post in the Washington State Army National Guard because she admitted her homosexuality. A story of her plight was broadcast on the CBS news program 60 Minutes. Quickly, the policy of banning gays in the military became a presidential campaign issue — in which Democrat Bill Clinton was able to distinguish himself from Republican George Bush.

Clinton garnered the support of gays and those who supported gay civil rights when he announced that he would order an end to the policy banning gays from service if he were to win the presidency. A momentum seemed to be gaining towards a shift in both attitudes and policy at the highest levels of the federal government.

In November of 1992, U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter ruled that the ban on gays serving in the military was unconstitutional. The case involved Naval Senior Chief Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, who’d been forced to accept an honorable discharge after publicly proclaiming he was gay. Judge Hatter declared that there was “no rational basis for the military’s policy excluding gays” and ordered the Navy to reinstate Meinhold.

After his court victory, Meinhold — based in San Diego — was asked if he thought this ruling by Judge Hatter signaled the end of the military’s ban on gays serving in the armed forces. Meinhold said he was very optimistic in the wake of the election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore to the White House that same year.

“I have great faith in Bill Clinton. I think he’ll keep his promise to end the ban,” said Meinhold.

But it is one thing to make political promises during a campaign, and quite another to attempt to change a culture’s most conservative, traditional, and some would argue, sacred institution — the United States Military. Within three weeks after being sworn in as the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton became embroiled in the controversy over lifting the ban on gays in the military.

Critics argued that if Clinton had been a decorated veteran like his political idol John F. Kennedy; or had not been such a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War in his youth; or had won his election in a landslide; that he could have withstood the pressure from military leaders and conservatives to keep the ban in place.

But he was never in a position of strength to challenge an American military culture that viewed him suspiciously from the start. And very few members of Congress — even from his own party — were willing to stand behind his call to lift the ban.
“That issue permanently damaged his presidency,” said King, who is also active within the chiefly gay and lesbian San Diego Democratic Club. “He handled it badly, made supporters like myself very bitter towards him, and it will always go down in the gay and lesbian culture as a betrayal on his part.”

Clinton faced furious opposition to lifting the ban from among others, General Colin Powell. The first African-American to serve as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell repeatedly insisted that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military would “undermine the cohesion and well-being of the force.”

Powell was supported by Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, as well as many political leaders coming from states with large military populations. A February 1993poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that 76 percent of enlisted men and 55 percent of enlisted women wanted to maintain the ban on gays serving in the military.

Despite wide-spread anti-discrimination laws across the country and in the federal codes, supporters of maintaining the ban insisted that the military was not subject to the same rules as the general civilian population.

“The military simply must not and need not adhere to the same rules as civilian employment. Although the military defends the principles of democratic society, it cannot fully embody them. Its end is victory, not equity; its virtue is courage, not justice; its structure is authoritarian, not pluralistic,” said retired Army Colonel David Hackworth in a June 28, 1992 column for the Washington Post.

Those who wanted to see the ban lifted, argued that questions being raised about the detrimental effects to cohesion and morale had been used 45 years earlier during the debate over integration of blacks in the military. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ended the forced segregation of blacks from whites in the U.S. military.
“My very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as president I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this,” said President Truman in a 1947 letter to Congress.

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), many of the highest military brass in American history opposed the integration of the armed forces, including Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and George Marshall. SLDN compared this group with those opposed to lifting the ban on gays serving their country. This list included Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, and then Marine Commandant Carl Mundy.

“Skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient, but invalid argument,” said Powell in a letter to Congress.
“Powell is a guttersnipe,” said Herb King with all the bitterness he could muster. “For a man who’s experienced the racism of America to be so bigoted when it comes to gays and lesbians is intolerable,” added King.

Clinton grew noticeably angry during a February 1993 press conference when it became clear that few within his own party had the stomach to stand up to General Powell and the military culture of this country.

“It is wrong that a person who has honorably served their country in uniform is harassed, sometimes threatened, and always punished simply because of their sexual orientation,” said Clinton.

But with little support from Congress and zero support from military leaders, Clinton was pressured to end the angry debate and accept a compromise on lifting the ban. Written by Senator Nunn, that compromise became known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The new policy essentially maintained the ban on gays serving in the military. It forbids gays and lesbians within the armed services from revealing their sexuality — including such actions as holding hands, maintaining photographs of same-sex partners on desks or in lockers, and demonstrating any form of romantic or sexual behavior to a person of the same sex.
But the new policy did prohibit military commanders from making inquiries into a soldier’s personal life. Military leaders were no longer able to ask a person if they were gay. Investigations into homosexual behavior were supposed to end.
However, few who have followed the treatment of gays in the military would suggest that any of the conditions placed on the military establishment have ever been fully enforced. Most would argue that conditions were better for gays prior to implementation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ made the entire situation much worse,” said former U.S. Marine Len Regan.

Currently secretary of the San Diego Gay Veterans organization, Regan served in the military from 1981-1986. Like King and Pedrick, he said he enjoyed his time in the service.

“I was a good marine. Yes I lied during the induction process. I never verbally admitted I was gay. But during the entire time I served in the marines, I never hid the fact that I was gay. I worked part time as a bartender at a gay club ... off base in Cherry Point, North Carolina. People in the marines knew I was gay, but that never stopped me from getting promoted on three occasions,” said Pedrick.

Regan, who left the marines with the rank of Corporal, said that when he served, nobody really cared about the homosexual issue, as long as that person did his job well.

“I knew people who were thrown out for being gay. But those people also happened to be lousy Marines. The Marine Corps is very strict. One of the things I loved about it was the culture of discipline and physical rigor,” said Regan. “The Marines expect you to keep a tight appearance and orderly environment. Those who got kicked-out were usually dirty or sloppy. That happened to both homosexual and heterosexual Marines. I also knew gay Marines who were caught, but allowed to stay in the Marines because they were good Marines,” continued Regan.

“Spencer,” a member of the U.S. Coast Guard who preferred to use a pseudonym, due to his active duty status, said that he thought the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was a waste of paperwork. Currently based in San Diego, Spencer agreed with the sentiment that the policy is a failure.

“There are so many good men and women in this world who could be serving their country honorably, but aren’t allowed to do so because of this policy. Why should a person’s sexuality matter,” said Spencer. “I love the military. The question of readiness is a crock, because all the men who serve form a bond — an esprit-de-corps which comes from training together in a perilous or difficult circumstance.

Having served in the military since 1996, Spencer insisted that those who would ban gays from serving are operating from an intolerant point of view. Spencer said those who claim their religious convictions prevent them from serving with gays and lesbians should consider rethinking their values.

“Any religious philosophy which creates bias or leads to hate and discrimination is no philosophy honoring the Golden Rule,” said Spencer.
When the policy was first enacted, President Clinton said that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would “put an end to witch hunts and the ferreting out of individuals who have served their country well.”

But in the seven years since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been in place, numerous incidents of harassment and violence have been documented.

In September of 1993, Marine Corporal Kevin Blaesing discussed his sexuality with a psychologist at the Naval hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. The psychologist reported the session to Blaesing’s commander, who began an investigation into Blaesing’s sexual history.

In 1996, Army Private Shannon Emery was attacked by fellow soldiers and almost raped. When she reported the incident to her superiors, her command looked into the matter, refused to prosecute the men who’d allegedly attacked her, then proceeded to investigate Emory’s own sexual history. Her superiors encouraged Emory to turn in others she knew to be gay in exchange for leniency.

In 1999, Private First-Class Barry Winchell was beaten to death while in his barracks at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Other soldiers who thought Winchell was gay ganged-up and attacked him with a baseball bat. During the investigation and trial, it was reported that Winchell had endured daily anti-gay harassment, which was largely ignored by his commanding officers.

In August 2000, Army private Ronald Chapman was severely beaten by other soldiers. Taking their lead from a scene from the film Full Metal Jacket, the attackers snuck-up on Chapman during the middle of the night as he slept. Known as a “blanket party,” the other soldiers repeatedly hit him with blankets stuffed with economy sized soap bars. His drill instructors and other members of his company had repeatedly harassed Chapman prior to the night of the “blanket party.”

“I got beat up last night. Someone came to my bed — a group of someones — and they were hitting me with blankets and soap,” said Chapman in a letter to his family. “I am aching all over my body. My whole body hurts ... I can’t believe this happened. Who did I hurt?”

Herb King speculates that one of the reasons the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is allowed to remain is a lack of interest by the gay and lesbian community at large.

“Young gay people don’t share the notion of serving one’s country as us older folks do,” said King. “The young are more interested in issues like gay marriage and discrimination within the civilian work place. Many gays can’t understand why a person would want to join the military, since they see the military as such a conservative, restrictive and threatening environment for gays. It is very tough to arouse interest in this issue within the larger gay population,” added King.