A Matter of Civil Rights: Gays and the Military (Editorial)

By Wall, James M. | The Christian Century, February 17, 1993 | Go to article overview

A Matter of Civil Rights: Gays and the Military (Editorial)


Wall, James M., The Christian Century


THE DEBATE about gays in the military is not at bottom about privacy or military efficiency. It is about civil rights and homophobia. Opponents of lifting the ban on gays in the military may try to codify the ban, but court rulings will soon make such legal maneuvers as outdated as Jim Crow laws. As a California federal court recently stated: "Gays and lesbians should not be banned from serving our country in the absence of conduct which interferes with the military mission." Thus it is homophobia--the fear of homosexuality, not just homosexual persons--that is generating the controversy. And people's uncertainty over the emotional and complex meaning of sexual identity will take much longer to resolve--at least as long as it is taking our society to overcome white prejudice against people of color.

A few weeks ago near Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, three marines were arrested for beating up a civilian gay man after dragging him from a homosexual bar. A police desk sergeant who booked the marines said: "They were saying things like the. hate all faggots, and they wish they were all dead, and they're not ashamed of it." This outpouring of homophobic feeling reveals not just a conviction that gay persons should not be in military service, but that they should not exist at all. We call that bigotry.

The sexual harassment of women is often overlooked in the armed forces, and sometimes even admired; gay-bashing is widespread and at times condoned in the name of unit discipline. One former marine told me recently that he knew of at least two incidents during his tour of duty in the late 1980s in which homosexual marines were beaten up after they were discovered to be lovers. The gay men involved were arrested and probably discharged. This marine, who acknowledges that he does not personally favor lifting the ban, said he realizes that eventually the ban will have to be lifted. And to bolster the argument for doing so, he paraphrased Martin Luther King, jr., on the effectiveness of law: "The law cannot make you love me, but it can sure keep you from beating me up."

The military (and the FBI and CIA) have long argued that gays should be barred from federal service to avoid being subject to blackmail. But, ironically, by opening closet doors and allowing gays to acknowledge their sexual orientation, the blackmail threat dissipates.

So proponents of the ban have to fall back on the arguments of privacy and military efficiency.

Efficiency? In view of the enormous cost of apprehending and discharging gays from the service, the negative impact on morale caused by gay witch-hunts, and the waste of taxpayers' money in removing highly trained soldiers from active duty, the ban on gays would seem to be financially inefficient. Nor should the military be allowed to hide behind the issue of military efficiency. Units in the armed forces are no different from other close-knit groups that perform difficult tasks under pressure; teamwork and trust are just as crucial for firefighters and surgical teams as they are for military units. What matters to these groups is not sexual orientation but job performance. Misconduct of any sort should be met with discipline.

Privacy? Someone will need to ask the joint chiefs how long it has been since they lived in a barracks. …

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