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Why I Can't Celebrate the End of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Many are applauding the repeal of DADT as an advance for gay and lesbian civil rights. And while any advance in civil rights is difficult to oppose, I am troubled by the celebration and fanfare that has accompanied the repeal of this policy. After eighteen years of such a costly and repugnant policy, why do I not rejoice at this step forward in legal protections for LGB individuals? Why can't I celebrate the end of DADT as an advance in civil rights?

Part of my reticence to celebrate comes from the current news coverage that suggests that the repeal of DADT is the final victory of a monolithic LGBT community that has been fighting for inclusion in the military for decades. But the gay community has never been uniform in its support for military inclusion. Eighteen years ago Clinton's decision to lift a ban on homosexuality in the military was met with reservation from many quarters of the LGBT communities who opposed the creeping militarization o f our lives and communities . This reticence and resistance from within our communities is missing from this celebration of civil rights. While "inside the beltway" activists honor and defend as a civil right every individual's decision to serve their country through military service, are LGBT communities obligated to support such a corrupt, misogynistic, and homophobic institution? Have we forgotten the Pentagon's plan in 1994 to develop a "gay bomb" that would release female pheromones on the battlefield, thereby triggering uncontrollable lust among enemy combatants on the battlefield, rendering this newly created gay enemy unable to fight? Such adolescent misunderstandings of masculinity, sexuality, and human nature should be enough to make LGBT communities question if the military is really an institution worth joining.

What might a progressive and/or a radical LGBT community response to the repeal of DADT look like today? We might begin by acknowledging that while ending this ban will make it easier for LGB people in the military to stay there, and easier for others to join, there are larger political implications to this inclusion. This civil rights victory entitles LGB persons to serve as "the mercenaries of a military industrial complex" as Barbara Smith said. These "mercenaries" have succeeded in killing more than 110,000 civilian non combatants in Iraq, and more than 10,000 civilian noncombatants in Afghanistan. Is this truly progress, and if so for whom? Our military leaders claim that the creation of a stable democratic society is the goal in these countries. Nonetheless the Pentagon was slow to condemn anti-gay honor killings in Iraq and seems not to think that rampant violence directed at sexual minorities is incompatible with a democratic society. Should progressive LGBT communities not also be globally engaged ones? Should civil rights victories here manipulate us into abandoning our moral courage and outrage at homophobia and sexual violence abroad ? When Abu Ghraib revealed homosexual rape to be part of the military's humiliation of prisoners, I wondered if that could have happened if an LGBT service member had been present. Yet, today, I fear that misplaced patriotism, jingoism, demonization of the enemy-- all well worn practices of the United States Military--will create camaraderie among queer and straight soldiers long before it would help gay servicemen and women see their own connection to sexually subjugated enemy combatants.

A truly radical LGBT response would go further still. We might be working to dismantle the military industrial complex and shift those billions of dollars to help the very economically distressed communities and individuals that military recruiters target to make their monthly enlistment quotas-- sites which will now include LGBT community centers. Deploying promises of a steady income, high tech training, college grants, and upward social mobility, the US Military targets the highest risk populations in our society for recruitment. Suspect under normal conditions, during a prolonged recession this strategy is simply dishonest and exploitive. It seems even more exploitative when one realizes that all of these promised benefits have become comparatively less generous and less effective in recent decades.


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A radical LGBT community movement might also demand that the savings from the repeal of DADT be directed toward those LGBT community centers that are now targeted for recruitment: a kind of queer combination of a Peace dividend and reparations to a community for historically egregious official discrimination. With more than 13,000 GLBT service members fired under DADT and an average investment in their training priced at $52000 per service member, a queer dividend of $383 million invested at the community level over the next 18 years could help address the many forms that LGBT discrimination takes today.

But of course no such dividend will be forthcoming. In the current budget debate as the military insists that any cuts to its budget will cripple its readiness, we should remember that this $383 million was money the military squandered upholding a discriminatory policy. Surely, this is a painless budget cut that all taxpayers can applaud. Unfortunately, like the Cold War "Peace dividend," the end of this war on LGBT people by the US military will bring no advantage to these communities nor to American taxpayers. The military will simply find another unneeded weapons system in which to invest, another politically connected Halliburton to which to funnel taxpayer dollars.

Although it is tempting to see any advance of civil rights as a good thing, I cannot celebrate the repeal of DADT. If the goal is the advance of LGBT civil rights, many areas exist where national leadership and congressional action would make a more significant impact on the lives of beltway activists, progressive GLBTs and Radical queers all. National laws making it illegal to discriminate against LGBT people in housing, in adoption, in civil unions, in immigration or in the workplace would have far reaching consequences for many. A law that ends discrimination in the workplace could bring truly progressive change to greater numbers of people in the United States and might also have been applied to the military as one of the country's largest employers. When finally the Employment Non Discrimination Act, or some future incarnation of it, passes and becomes the law of the United States, I will celebrate. Until then, consider me "Section 8," but the military is no place for queers.

Gary Lehring

Gary Lehring, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Government and Gender Studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is the author of Officially Gay: The Political Construction of Sexuality by the US Military.

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