A year after Barack Obama won office, he has finally announced that he will lift the ban on gays serving openly in the US military. So far, he has been cautious, not wishing to waste precious political capital on this issue.
There are good reasons for him to tread carefully. The last time a president tried to repeal the ban was in 1993 when dismayed military chiefs forced Bill Clinton to broker a compromise. The result was the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy which allowed gays to serve so long as they kept their sexuality secret, but instead of improving the situation for gay personnel, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell arguably made matters worse. Not only did the ban remain intact, but also the law now required officers to suppress their sexuality.
Stories abound of homophobic discrimination in the US armed forces. In 2002, Air Force Sergeant David Hall was discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell after someone else reported he was gay. In 2006, naval officer Joseph Rocha reported suffering two years of repeated abuse after his colleagues suspected that he was gay. Rocha was discharged from office. His attackers were never charged; one of them, Michael Toussaint, has since been promoted to Senior Chief.
The enduring ban prosecutes gay personnel, yet leaves their abusers unpunished. It stigmatises the threat that homosexuality poses to "military discipline and cohesion", while overlooking the violence to which gay officers themselves are exposed. At the same time, it expects these officers to serve diligently and honourably. It is understandable, then, why Obama and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared the ban’s removal "the right thing to do".
But there are also other reasons why the ban’s removal makes sense — reasons that may impress Americans more than a lecture on a minority’s civil rights. For instance, the ban has caused a massive drain on the military’s personnel. Under the policy, more than 13,500 have left the service. Of those, 800 occupied positions considered critical to the US’s war efforts since they served as intelligence analysts and interpreters of Arabic, Farsi and Korean.
The ban is also grossly expensive to maintain, primarily because it requires the military to recruit and train new officers to replace the discharged personnel. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office estimated that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had so far cost $190.5 million. A blue ribbon commission group revised that figure in 2006 to $363.8 million.
Nonetheless, the ban’s supporters persist in making dire predictions about what will happen if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed. John McCain has claimed that it will somehow overburden the military. Oliver North, calling the intended repeal "a stunning assault on the old volunteer military" and "a radical social experiment", suggested that open homosexuality would result in falling personnel retention rates. None of them has yet discussed the ban’s own impact on public coffers and retention.
Perhaps the strongest arguments in favour of removing the ban, though, come from outside the US. In 2010, open homosexuality is a non-issue in several militaries around the world, including those of American allies such as Australia, Britain, Canada and Israel. All have managed to function without reporting any of the problems anticipated by the likes of McCain and North.
The Australian Defence Force would seem a model employer of gay, lesbian and bisexual personnel. In 1992, a year before the US implemented Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Australian Defence Force lifted its ban on homosexuality. Stuart O’Brien, Chief Petty Officer and head of the Defence Gay and Lesbian Information Service, says that "the general experience of gay and lesbian personnel serving in the Australian Defence Force is one free from discrimination or harassment". Instances of discrimination are isolated and subject to due process. "When harassment does happen," O’Brien told me, "the Defence Force quickly addresses these issues to ensure harassment of any kind is stamped out."
O’Brien acknowledges the Federal Government’s action in 2005 of extending Defence benefit payments to interdependent same-sex couples. He enthuses in particular about benefits pertaining to "defence housing assistance, removals on postings, leave travel and location allowances when posted to remote localities, reunion travel when separated and education assistance for dependent children." He also credits the Government’s introduction of 85 same-sex law reforms in 2008 for removing discrimination relating to military superannuation and death benefits.
Corey Irlam, media spokesperson for the Australian Coalition for Equality, observes that the Defence Force is "light years ahead" of the US armed forces in its treatment of gay personnel and their partners. Far from enabling the social dissolution predicted by American homophobes, the Defence Force’s open homosexuality policy appears to have facilitated gay personnel’s integration into military ranks. Stuart O’Brien’s flourishing career would seem to vindicate this point. "I have seen operational service in the Middle East, been awarded numerous times and been promoted in minimal time," says O’Brien.
With support for the US ban dropping among active-duty troops, opposition to it rising among American voters and even the architects of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell advising its reevaluation, the prospects for its removal are much greater in 2010 than they were in 1993. As the example of the Australian Defence Force goes to show, the ban is not only discriminatory and profligate; it is also unnecessary.
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