Lesbians and Gays: Forced March in the Military

By Atkins, Gary L. | The Nation, January 2, 1989 | Go to article overview

Lesbians and Gays: Forced March in the Military


Atkins, Gary L., The Nation


Within a few months, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, sitting en banc, will decide whether the milita may continue unimpeded its ongoing campaign to expel lesbians and gay men from its ranks. Last February, a three-judge panel of the court stunned the Pentagon by declaring the Army regulations excluding such soldiers unconstitutional, but the Army won a stay. It's a case the military dearly wants to win. Under the Reagan-Bush Administration, the armed services have become deeply invested in an earnest anti-gay crusade that has escalated in both the barracks and the Federal courts over the past year.

Since June, the Marine Corps has imprisoned three women and discharged eleven others for alleged homosexual activity at its recruit depot in Parris Island, South Carolina. In August, the Navy investigated twenty-five to thirty women aboard the destroyer tender Yellowstone and removed twelve from the ship, claiming that all had confessed to being homosexuals. In mid-November, the Navy discharged eight of the dozen, one of the biggest such separations to result from a single Navy investigation since 1980. These cases are but the most recent, visible developments in the military's purge. During the three-year period ending September 30, i987, more than 4,600 men and women were discharged from active duty because of homosexuality, according to Defense Department statistics - The brunt has fallen on women, raising suggestions that the assault is sexist as well as anti-gay. Overall, women are three times more likely to be removed for homosexuality than are men, with sixteen of every 10,000 women on active duty expelled compared to five of every 10,000 men. The rates vary among the individual services. In the Marine Corps, for example, enlisted women are eight times more likely to be discharged for homosexuality.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, mililtary regulations included a loophole that permitted some homosexuals to remain in the service as exceptions. In 1980, immediately after the election of Ronald Reagan, the Defense Department adopted new rules mandating the exclusion of all known or discovered Lesbians and gay men. The draconian regulations swept far beyond the bill Congress passed regarding consensual sexual practices in the military. That law makes it a crime for service personnel to engage in acts of either heterosexual or homosexual sodomy involving penetration, covering oral and anal intercourse. In contrast, the expansive Defense Department rules exclude anyone who engages in or even "desires" to engage in any homosexual acts, anyone who claims to be a homosexual and anyone who attempts to marry a person of the same sex. Homosexual acts are defined as any "bodily contact . - . between members of the same sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desires," a broad net that led one Federal appeals judge to note caustically that such a definition could include everything from oral and anal intercourse to holding hands, kissing, hugging or any number of physical gestures.

Significantly, the regulations allow exceptions for military personnel who simply make "mistake," but claim to be heterosexual. Even a person who tries to marry another of the same sex can stay in the military by claiming that the attempt was deliberately made to dodge the service. Critics have argued that it is an odd regulation that finds an individual who lies or attempts fraud to be more acceptable than one who honestly states sexual interests. Mary Dunlap, a leading gay civil rights attorney in California, contends that "the Army doesn't actually care what people are doing, but what they are saying." Indeed, it is the unashamed gay willing to be honest, rather than the closeted homosexual, who seems to disturb the military the most.

Since the rules took effect in 1980, gays have raised four constitutional challenges. Two have been crushed by Federal judges: one a substantive due process argument that the rules deny gays and Lesbians the right to serve in the military, the other a privacy argument that the military has no right to regulate behind-closed-doors consensual adult sex. …

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