US Military's War on Gays
Published on Tuesday, March 19, 2002 in the Boston Globe
US Military's War on Gays
by Thomas Oliphant
ALL WINTER, and especially in the last month, American and British soldiers have been conducting operations in Afghanistan together. It occurred to me, therefore, to inquire if this most intimate manifestation of our alliance had in any way undermined the renowned unit cohesion of US forces.

Rest assured by military officials, it has not.

I also inquired whether any special steps were taken to keep the two countries' units apart in the field to protect American kids from distraction and discomfort. As it turns out, none.

The reason for the inquiries, of course, is that Britain does not find it worthy of an advanced industrial nation to discriminate against people aspiring to serve their country in the armed forces who happen to be gay.

The United States considers it important to its national security to yield to the insistence of the brass and segments of the social conservatism movement in maintaining a policy that is as silly as it is cruel.

It is silly because, alliance politics being what it is, US forces operate with counterparts all over the world that do not sanction bigotry in this manner, mocking the ignorant insistence by US officials that the presence of gays can affect the morale and cohesion of fighting units.

It is cruel because the thin veneer of a policy of semitolerance is punctured by a reality of widespread harassment, increasing discharges of servicemen and women, and growing evidence that the policy is subject to the whims of individual commanders.

Things also appear to be getting worse.

Every year since President Clinton tried and failed to meet a campaign pledge to join the rest of the advanced world and ban discrimination, settling instead for the national self-delusion of ''don't ask, don't tell,'' there has been a detailed report of what is really going on.

Naturally, it doesn't come from the Pentagon. Instead, it comes from a private organization, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which combines actual legal representation with expertise and advocacy.

The report, released last week to virtually no notice in the current, gung-ho media atmosphere, documented 1,250 cases of discharge from the services under the policy in 2001, the highest number since 1987, when the official stance was still a ban that was, of course, enforced whimsically, since gay people have been in the military throughout our history.

Directly linked to the number of discharges is the number of cases of harassment - verbal or otherwise - reported to the legal defense group. They were up sharply, to 1,075, from 871 the previous year, suggesting that tolerance of official misbehavior is increasing despite directives to the contrary.

The Army's discharges were the most numerous - 513. The Navy's were down to 314 from 358, the Air Force's rose only a bit, to 191 from 177, and the Marine Corps and Coast Guard were static at 115 and 14 respectively.

A few points are worth noting:

First, the site of a brutal murder in 1999, Fort Campbell in Kentucky, continues to be a special problem. One-third of the 616 reported instances of harassment in the Army occurred there despite the proactive measures taken by the new commander, Major General Richard Cody.

Second, the report finds still no action taken to implement the plan put it into effect following the murder of PFC Barry Winchell to stop harassment.

Third, women continue to be disproportionately mistreated. They comprise 14 percent of the armed forces and get 30 percent of the so-called gay discharges, including nearly half of those in the Air Force.

Fourth, the report covers the government's 2001 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, and thus doesn't show any results from the atmosphere after the war on terrorism began. One of the military's first responses was to issue orders blocking many pending discharges for misconduct. But this traditional response to crisis included special exceptions for gay people.

The Pentagon's myopia is reflected in its denial that harassment and discharges are linked. With no evidence, officials suggest that disclosure of homosexuality is a means of getting out of the military. What the legal defense network learns every day from its clients is that many kids can take the harassment only so long and turn to disclosure (violating the ''tell'' part of the policy) as a last resort.

This is war, we are told. In war, to use Clinton's famous phrase from 1992, we don't have a person to waste.

Not true. Somewhere out there might be a kid who could locate Osama bin Laden, but that mission's seriousness is mocked by the absurd official stance that we'd rather not achieve the objective if the key soldier involved is gay.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company