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General's comments push issue back into spotlight
The "don't ask" disaster

March 30, 2007 | Page 7

ELIZABETH SCHULTE tells the history of the Democrats and "don't ask, don't tell."

THE COMMENTS by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Peter Pace speak volumes about the bigotry against gays and lesbians that flourishes in the upper ranks of U.S. military.

Speaking about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays and lesbians, Pace offered this in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: "I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral, and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe that the Armed Forces of the United States are well served by saying through our policies, 'It's okay to be immoral in any way.'"

Pace shot his mouth off just as some political leaders were moving toward a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"--the military policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces, but only if they aren't open about their sexuality.

"'Don't ask, don't tell' is not working," said Sen. Hillary Clinton in an interview with ABC News reporter Jake Tapper. "We are being deprived of thousands of patriotic men and women who want to serve their country."

Even former Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. John Shalikashvili wrote in an op-ed article in the New York Times that he had "second thoughts" about the policy. "I now believe that, if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military," he wrote, "they would not undermine the efficacy of the Armed Forces."

When "don't ask, don't tell" went into effect more than a decade ago, the result was a higher level of soldiers dishonorably discharged because of their sexual orientation. So when it comes to the motives of politicians criticizing "don't ask," you can't help but note the obvious fact that the military is strapped for recruits to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Clinton was upfront about it: "[O]ne can argue whether it was a good idea when it was first implemented, but we now have evidence as to the fact that we are in a time of war--when we really need as many people as we can to recruit and retain in an all-volunteer army--we are turning people away or discharging them not because of what they've done but because of who they are."

Now, Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) has announced plans for a bill to repeal "don't ask" called the "Military Readiness Enhancement Act."

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A 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office showed that about 10,000 service personnel have been discharged since the "don't ask, don't tell" policy took effect.

And there's no telling how many former soldiers are like Brian Fricke, an ex-Marine sergeant who served nine months in Iraq's Anbar province--and who left because he was tired of pretending he wasn't gay. "You'll never be able to tabulate" how many gay people left the military voluntarily because of "don't ask, don't tell," Fricke told USA Today.

Harassment of gays and lesbians is still standard operating procedure. Over a year's time, 80 percent of service members had heard offensive speech, derogatory names, jokes or remarks about gays, according to a 2000 Defense Department inspector general survey.

While many cases aren't reported for fear of further retaliation, 37 percent of service members reported they had witnessed or experienced direct, targeted forms of harassment, including verbal and physical assaults and property damage.

Some service members have lost their lives under "don't ask." Pfc. Barry Winchell was brutally beaten to death with a baseball bat in his barracks at Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1999 after rumors and harassment about his sexual orientation.

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THE "DON'T ask" policy went into effect in 1993 as one of the first acts of the newly elected Clinton administration.

When Clinton ran for election in 1992, he promised he would repeal the existing policy of excluding gays and lesbians from the military. He made this promise after several veterans of the first Gulf War broke their silence and made public announcements of their sexuality to protest the existing antigay policy.

Expectations were high that there might be significant progress made on gay rights. But Clinton broke his promise almost immediately after winning. Instead, he introduced "don't ask, don't tell" in 1993.

He tried to explain it away by arguing that, "Because [the military] is a conservative institution, it is right for the military to be wary of sudden changes...it is also right for the military to make changes when the time for change is at hand."

Clinton's duplicity didn't stop there. In 1996, he signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that barred the federal government from giving any legal recognition to married gay couples. DOMA denies lesbians and gays some 1,000 federal rights and benefits that married heterosexual couples have--ones with often life-altering consequences, like being able to sponsor a spouse who is not a U.S. citizen for permanent residence.

In the absence of any real pressure from gay rights activists and comfortable in the calculation that he would have the support of the liberal gay and lesbian organizations whose focus is elections, Clinton decided to satisfy his supporters on the right.

"In retrospect, 'don't ask, don't tell' was an astonishing act of political cowardice," Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone magazine. "Telling gay men and women that they had to hide who they were in order to earn the privilege of getting shot at for our idiot military adventures was almost worse than open bigotry. It essentially institutionalized the Closet."

Today, the first instinct of the leading Democratic presidential contenders is to skirt the issue of gay rights.

Hillary Clinton initially responded to questions about whether she agreed with Pace that homosexuality was "immoral" by telling ABC's Jake Tapper, "Well, I'm going to leave that to others to conclude."

She quickly readjusted, saying she opposes "don't ask," but used the most conservative arguments to do so. "This policy doesn't just hurt gays and lesbians," she told a meeting of the Human Rights Campaign, "it hurts all our troops, and this to me is a matter of national security, and we're going to fix it."

Sen. Barack Obama followed Clinton's dodge when a Newsday reporter asked him whether he agreed with Pace. "I think traditionally the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has restricted his public comments to military matters," he said. "That's probably a good tradition to follow."

Later, he cleared up his position (sort of), stating, "I don't think that homosexuals are immoral any more than I think heterosexuals are immoral" in an appearance on CNN's Larry King Live.

But the incident is telling about who leading Democrats see as their audience. Neither Clinton nor Obama want to anger social conservatives.

John Kerry took the same attitude in the 2004 election. At the time, he was getting advice from Bill Clinton, who suggested he support ballot initiatives that would ban gay marriage from state constitutions in order to get the conservative vote, according to Newsweek. "Out in the country, they're wearing us out with guns and gay marriage," Clinton told an Arkansas crowd on the stump for Kerry in 2004.

While he didn't go as far as Clinton recommended, Kerry did publicly oppose gay marriage, indicating his support for an amendment to the state constitution that would overturn gay marriage in Massachusetts.

Unfortunately, gay rights organizations that might have organized pressure on Kerry to support same-sex marriage--a demand that mobilized thousands in Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, and won equal marriage rights there--didn't organize, and instead threw their support behind the Democrats.

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WHATEVER PACE thinks about gays and lesbians, his view isn't shared by an increasing majority of the population. A Pew Research Center survey last year found that 60 percent favored gays serving openly in the military, up from 52 percent in 1994.

Retired Staff Sgt. Eric Fidelis Alva, who lost his right leg to a land mine in the Iraq war's opening days, told Time magazine, "It was like carrying this enormous secret that you want to share with someone. I eventually formed close bonds with other Marines and did confide in them. They treated me with the same respect and dignity afterward. We were still buddies."

About 23 percent of troops know someone in their unit who is gay or lesbian, according to a recent Zogby International poll of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And about 55 percent of troops who know a gay peer said the presence of gays or lesbians in their unit was well known by others.

The sentiment exists for demanding an end to "don't ask, don't tell" and the back-of-the-bus compromises on same-sex marriage.

When it comes to fighting for gay rights, the Democrats may want to sit on the fence. But there's no room on that fence for anyone committed to equal rights for lesbians and gays.

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