Jun 1 1993

Ask Not What Gays Will Do to the Military

Ask what the military is doing to gays

The debate over repealing the military’s prohibition of homosexuality—not so much a question of “letting gays in,” as it was sometimes described, but a matter of ending discrimination against the thousands of gay men and lesbians already in the armed forces—has been peculiarly limited.

The reasons military leaders give for maintaining the ban were often front and center—usually couched in terms like “privacy,” “discipline,” “morale.” But only sometimes were advocates for gay rights given an adequate chance to respond.

The second paragraph of a front-page New York Times story on the controversy (1/26/93) cited Gen. Colin Powell and others as saying that ending discrimination by sexual orientation “would seriously undermine morale and discipline, disrupt military readiness and threaten recruiting.” Twenty-one paragraphs later, on page A16, the story noted vaguely that gay rights supporters were “contending that many of the military’s arguments for keeping the ban were bogus or exaggerated.”

The debate almost always centered on perceptions of what open gays would do to the military—and almost never dealt with what the military is currently doing to lesbians and gay men.

    Seldom did news reports mention the witch-hunts that go on in the military against those suspected of homosexuality. These purges were vividly described by Randy Shilts in his book Conduct Unbecoming, which was excerpted in the L.A. Times Magazine (4/25/93):

    Routinely, military investigators tell the frightened young soldiers and sailors–most of whom are 19 years old or, at most, in their early 20s–that they will do hard labor in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth if they do not confess to being gay–and turn in others. If the subject is a single mother, investigators sometimes threaten to turn her in to child-welfare authorities, who could take her children away.
  • Interviews with military personnel sometimes mentioned the fact that women in the military were much more in favor of lifting the ban than men, but less often noted a major reason for this: Charges of lesbianism are often leveled at women, both gay and straight, who fail to respond to sexual advances by men.
  • The threat of violence against gay personnel was more often presented as a reason for maintaining the ban–“People are going to go after them physically,” an airman was quoted in the New York Times (1/28/93)–than as a reason for the military establishment to stop promoting a climate of intolerance.

Part of the problem was that reporters, as usual, gave priority to official sources. While military officials and congressional leaders like Senate Armed Services chair Sam Nunn were outspoken in defense of the ban, the Clinton administration kept a low profile, presumably out of fear of appearing “pro-gay.”

But the media were selective in which official sources were quoted. Rep. Ron Dellums, who heads the House counterpart to Nunn’s committee, was unequivocal in support of lifting the ban, telling reporters, “This is a tempest in a teapot. America needs to get beyond its ignorance, its fear, its bigotry and its oppression and get on with it as a mature society.” But this support was nowhere near as visible as Nunn’s opposition. “If you read the paper, I’m not even there,” Dellums complained to the L.A. Times (4/11/93).

Most media discussions of the issue seemed unable to use words like “bigotry” or “hatred” or “homophobia.” Instead, there was a tendency to put a positive gloss on the most blatant expressions of bias. In the New York Times (1/27/93), a Marine officer was quoted arguing that the Bible said homosexuals were “worthy of death.” Reporter Eric Schmitt prefaced this by reporting that “many military personnel have religious or moral objections to allowing gays in the armed services.” Wanting gays to be killed is a “religious or moral” position?

Another former Marine was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times (1/31/93): “I can’t see a guy, he’s openly as queer as a three-dollar bill, and he asks me to put my life on the line? When he doesn’t believe what I believe?” The reporter seemed to validate this hysteria in the next line: “Experts call it a question of group dynamics.”

Media commentators themselves often descended into similar macho non sequiturs. Radio talkshow host Michael Reagan, a guest on CNN‘s Crossfire (2/3/93), made this argument in favor of the ban: “Take it back down to an 18- or 19-year-old kid that you have just trained to be a mean, lean, fighting, killing machine and tell him he has got the greatest opportunity in the world to go out and prove his manhood, prove he can go out and kill and then tell him he’s got to sleep with [a] homosexual, shower with a homosexual.” The rationality of this argument was not questioned by nominally left host Michael Kinsley.