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By Nathaniel B. Broyles
Professor Geoffrey P. Anderson SWK 255 February 1, 2011
President Barrack Obama recently spearheaded phase one of the repeal of the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that prohibited commanders from asking their subordinates whether or not they were gay or lesbian. Prior to this point in time, the revelation of a soldier’s homosexuality led to an immediate separation from the military. The argument for this was that those soldiers posed a detriment to unit cohesion and would be a distraction to others. The same argument was made against the integration of soldiers of Native American, African American, Japanese, and Korean descent. By exploring how the military handled racial integration, it may be possible to extrapolate how successful the integration of openly gay and lesbian soldiers will be. The United States Military has long been a vehicle for societal change. Discrimination along the lines of race, color, and creed are simply not permitted in today’s modern military. It was in the United States armed forces that barriers were shattered and the doors leading to change opened for their civilian counterparts. Each step along the way was, and is, a new battle but the first skirmishes are seemingly always fought in the ranks of the military. For the most part, the government cannot force civilians to conform to radical norms instituted by changes in law. The military, however, has the power to impose sanctions on those who resist the implementation of those changes. Ultimately, the military is more concerned with making sure a unit is cohesive and efficient, no matter its composition. Those changes in attitude that come from working side by side with those who were once outside of society’s “norms” eventually filter over into civilian life over an extended period of time. The early 1900’s saw a great deal of tension along religious, cultural, and ethnic lines. It was a time when anti-immigration prejudices were at their peak and marriages across religious and ethnic lines was rare. In spite of the inflamed tensions present in the civilian world, however, the military refused to place those with different backgrounds into segregated units. In fact, Brigadier General Harvey Jervey wrote that “It is not the policy of the United States Army to encourage or permit the formation of distinctive brigades, regiments, battalions or other organizations composed exclusively or primarily of members of any race, creed, political or social group.” (Canaday) It was an effective policy as the men served together for years overcame the prejudices that they entered the service with in order to form effective units. When the time came to integrate Native Americans, African-Americans, and those of Japanese and Korean descent, it was a similar story. Native Americans served successfully in integrated units during both World Wars but, in civilian life, experienced a great deal of discrimination. In many ways, they were treated just as poorly as AfricanAmericans were. African-Americans served in segregated units prior to and during World War II but, in February of 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 and directed the U. S. Military to desegregate as soon as possible. (Mintz) It took a little more than three years before actual integration took place but it did when a March 1951 survey and analysis by Johns Hopkins University’s Operations Research Office revealed that:
• • • •
Integration raised the morale of African-American soldiers and did not reduce that of white soldiers; Integration was favored by black soldiers and was not opposed by most white soldiers; Experience in integrated units increased white support for integration; Integration improved fighting effectiveness. (Mintz)
The next great challenge that has been handed to the United States military is that of integrating those men and women who have a desire to serve their country but whose sexual orientations differ from what is perceived as the “norm.” Homosexuality is a term that was first coined in the late 19th century by a German psychologist by the name of Karoly Maria Benkert. It refers to the sexual attraction that a person feels for a person of the same gender. Historically, there have been cultural and religious biases against the practice of same-sex relationships. For the most part, the argument boils down to the practice being “unnatural” since procreation can never happen in those types of relationships and, thus, the species is unable to continue. It is an argument that depends on so-called “Natural Laws.” (Stanford) The United States Military has long had a ban on homosexuals serving in the military. It was not until the early 1990’s that advocates for gays and lesbians gained enough popularity and power to actually begin making a tangible difference in how society perceives those who practice a homosexual lifestyle. In fact, President Bill Clinton made the removal of all governmental discrimination against homosexuals a critical part of his administration. For Clinton, “the issue of gays in the military probably seemed like an easy win: AIDS could not be cured with a snap of the fingers, and the research that was needed cost money; private intolerance and discrimination could not be ended overnight; and same-sex marriage was not on the agenda in a serious way. But ending overt government discrimination against gays in the 1990s seemed, by comparison, almost simple, and overdue.” (Frank, p. 16) President Truman had, earlier, desegregated the military along racial boundaries with an executive order so, to Clinton, this was no different. President Clinton, unfortunately, did not take into account the firestorm that the “religious right” would unleash in the wake of his stated desires to repeal the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. The self-appointed watchdogs of American morality in the media, religious organization, and in the military wages a concerted campaign to malign homosexuals and their perceived lifestyles as much as possible as a prelude to the upcoming political debate on overturning the ban. It was then that Congress and the Senate began to hone in on what was rapidly becoming a hot-button issue in the country. There were several hearings on the issue and General Colin Powell, famous for his role in the first Gulf War, featured prominently in them. It was Powell’s testimony before Congress that “letting such people into such a setting with heterosexuals who would prefer not to have somebody of the same sex find them attractive would be prejudicial to good order and discipline.” (Frank, p. 69) Essentially, his argument was that straight people prefer not to be considered attractive to gay people and he never was able to provide any evidence, even anecdotal, that gays were a detriment to order and discipline.
In the wake of Powell’s popularity and the stances of several other powerful military and congressional figures, President Clinton was forced to compromise. The ban would remain in effect but military personnel would not be required to disclose their sexual orientation and would not engage in homosexual behavior. In addition, their superiors were also prohibited from attempting to discover the sexual orientation on their subordinates. It was a policy that became known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” (Debatabase, p. 105) On December 22, 2010, President Barrack Obama signed a bill to begin the process of repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation. That bill was a “pre-authorization” and not the actual repeal of the law. The next step in the process is to officially certify that the repeal will not harm the combat effectiveness of America’s troops. Once that document is signed, the official countdown will begin for the Pentagon to officially integrate. (Johnson) There are many questions that need to be asked and answered about the situation as it currently stands. Chief among them, however, is the issue of how the repeal will affect the armed forces as a whole. Will the U. S. military become combat ineffective if the repeal goes all the way through? Will “good order and discipline” go out the window under an onslaught of anti-gay hysteria? Many of the questions that need to be asked can be answered by examining the manner in which the military racially integrated its armed services over a period of years following President Truman’s Executive Order 9981. There are many similarities, and some differences, between the two issues that make such a comparison feasible. In both cases, race and sexual orientation are a basis for minority group status in the United States. (Herek) Race is an immutable factor that cannot be changed and, in most cases, is readily apparent visibly, which makes it difficult to disguise one’s self and blend in with the majority. In addition, once someone has been identified as homosexual in sexual orientation, society, at least in America, tends to color all of their actions in terms of their sexuality with little regard for other factors. Such views by society also tend to extend to how race is perceived by the majority. Both minority groups, racial and sexual, suffer under prejudicial treatment by the majority. (Herek) As has been well-documented, there racial segregation was a societal norm for many years in America. Violence was often tolerated, and even encouraged or officially ignored in some areas of the country, against non-whites. People of color were viewed by the majority as being less intelligent and less “human” than were the white majority. Similarly, once a person has identified themselves as, or been “outed,” as homosexual in sexual orientation, they often face violent persecution at the hands of prejudiced members of the majority. The most telling similarity between the two situations is that, in both cases, the proposed policies of integration featured a great deal of political opposition and many hours of debate among civilians, the media, and the halls of government. Before President Truman’s Executive Order, the prevailing opinions in the military regarding racial
integration reflected the general views present in the civilian sector. That is to say, the general opinion regarding non-whites, specifically African–Americans, was that they were lazy, unintelligent, irresponsible, immoral, and untrustworthy; all negative stereotypes that permeated society for decades. Some of the same arguments, based on negative stereotypes, have been raised about homosexuals serving in an integrated military, mostly by the “religious right.” Racial integration in the military has been a success and that is something that has to be acknowledged by all sides. According to Defense Department general counsel Jeh Johnson, “in the 1940’s, some of our most revered heroes from the World War II period… predicted negative consequences for unit cohesion if there was racial integration.” (Condon) Granted, there was racial tension rampant in the military throughout the Korean and Vietnam War eras but those tensions reflected the tensions present in civilian society at the time. Despite those tensions, studies done on racially integrated units during those time frames indicate that those units were no less effective than segregated units and did not suffer from a lack of “good order and discipline.” As reflected the times, the changes were not easy but they were made and, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen says, “we are in a much better place as a military because those steps were taken when they were taken.” (Condon) It also has to be stated that there was a much larger percentage of the population that had to be integrated when racial integration was first mandated. At that time, there were nearly 8 million members of the armed forces and approximately 700,000 African– American soldiers that needed to be integrated, which was almost 9 percent of military personnel. By comparison, today’s military is around 1.5 million strong and estimates are that somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of those service members are thought to be homosexual. (Condon) Although the military was racially integrated long before it was generally accepted in civilian life, the reverse is more or less accurate when speaking of sexual orientation. Over the years, homosexuality has gone from being seen as a psychological problem that one would seek treatment to “cure” to being acceptable enough that there is substantial debate regarding what constitutes a marriage. Some states have even gone so far as to legalize same-sex unions. There is still evidence of prejudice against those who are openly gay or lesbian but it has lessened a great deal over the years. It is a curiosity that the military and civilian cultures have been flip-flopped on the policy of accepting homosexuals as members of the armed forces. Also, tellingly, the United States is the only North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) country that still maintains the ban on gays and lesbians serving in their country’s military. Great Britain, America’s closest ally, maintained their ban for the longest time but, after the European Court of Human Rights declared that it was illegal to ban homosexuals from service in the military, they lifted the ban on January 12, 2000. They did, of course, stock a legal defense fund for the anticipated lawsuits for unfair dismissal while inviting the formerly dismissed troops back into the service. (Frank, p. 145) The United States also finds itself in a similar situation as service members who have been
dismissed for their sexual orientation, or who are in the process of being dismissed, find themselves in a legal limbo as the repeal process slowly moves forward. Should America go the same route as her cousins across the Atlantic, it would make sense that similar measures would be taken in anticipation of a flurry of civil lawsuits. In my personal opinion, the Pentagon will have no choice but to issue a finding indicating that the inclusion of homosexuals in the military will not have a negative effect on the combat effectiveness of America’s troops. There will inevitably be some uncomfortable soldiers who will have to face those comrades who suddenly reveal themselves to members of the newest minority group to be accepted in the military but it will not be nearly as bad as some politicos think. Gays and lesbians will still have the option of not revealing themselves to be so. Unlike race, there is no outward marker indicating a person’s sexual preference. The only real change will be that, if they are revealed, or choose to “out” themselves, there will be no punishment for their status being made public. The best outcome of the repeal would be the fact the military would be able to retain those talented soldiers who feel a need to serve their country to the best of their abilities and who just happen to have a different sexual preference than what is accepted as the norm. In any case, we can predict that it will be several more months before the debate is resolved.
Works Cited Canaday, Margot. “U.S. Military Integration of Religious, Ethnic, and Racial Minorities in the Twentieth Century.” Palm Center, 1 May 2001. Web. 26 January 2011. Condon, Stephanie. “Is Allowing Gays to Serve Openly Comparable to Racial Integration of the Military?” CBS News. CBS News, 2 September 2010. Web. 26 January 2011. Frank, Nathaniel. Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2009. Print. Johnson, Jeremy. “DADT Repeal Step 2: When Will Certification Happen?” Palm Center, 18 January 2011. Web. 26 January 2011. Herek, Gregory M. “Race and Sexual Orientation: Commonalities, Comparisons, and Contrasts Relevant to Military Policy.” Web. 26 January 2011. International Debate Education Association. The Debatabase Book. New York: IDEBATE Press, 2009. Print. Mintz, S. (2007). “Integrating the Armed Forces.” Digital History. 26 January 2011. Web. 26 January 2011. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Homosexuality. Web. 18 January 2011.
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