I had thought that the US military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, banning homosexuals from serving in the armed forces, was on its way out as soon as Obama was on his way in. I was wrong.
So whatever happened to Obama's election promise, which secured him a huge gay-friendly vote in the 2008 presidential election? (It's the only question the President doesn't want us to ask!)
On 21 September 2010 the US Congress blocked Obama from repealing the ban, with 40 Republican and 2 Democrat senators voting to keep it in place. That was despite a ruling by a US federal court earlier in September which stated the policy was unconstitutional because it "infringes the fundamental rights of United States service members in many ways". Judge Virginia Phillips referred especially to the right of free speech, constitutionally enshrined by the First Amendment.
On 12 October, Judge Phillips, an appointee of the Clinton administration, issued a world-wide injunction, immediately stopping enforcement of the policy. The US Defence Department now has 60 days in which to appeal the injunction. An appeal is underway.
Although I gather from anecdotal exchanges with American friends that the good majority of American folks are supportive of lifting the ban, there obviously remains an influential conservative element in Washington, who would see the revocation of this policy as a grand ideological defeat. In September's Congressional vote, this element was no doubt encouraged by the recent swell of voters swinging away from mainstream GOP politics and towards the Palin-inspired conservative Tea Party movement.
An estimated 17,000 troops have been discharged from the US military since the policy was introduced in 1993. This is all the more astonishing considering the US military's recruiting difficulties in recent years. Each of these individuals has been ready, willing and able to serve their country in war.
One recent high-profile case was that of Lt-Col Victor Fehrenbach. The New York Times reported in August that Lt-Col Fehrenbach, a decorated US Air Force flight officer, may face discharge from the US Air Force after revealing his sexuality to police under interrogation. Fehrenbach is one of the highest ranking officers to be investigated under the policy. There are, however, hundreds of personal stories like his each year, especially among the lower ranks, where soldiers accused of being homosexual may not have the means, know-how or courage to challenge a superior.
The argument put forward by those who advocate the policy is simple. The official line from the US Department of Defence is: having homosexuals in the military "negatively impacts on operational capacity" and "undermines unit cohesion". In other words, you can't trust the gays. People who advocate this position often mount their argument knowing full-well that such an attitude would never be accepted in the civilian world. They therefore couch the argument with vacuous statements such as "due to the unique demands of military service...", and "given the close living quarters and long periods away...".
The truth is quite the opposite. Warriors are men who have committed to a cause, and to a life where their lives are regularly in the hands of others. They know and trust their mates, and look out for one and other. There should be no lies among brothers. Lies create distrust. Honesty creates understanding and mutual respect.
Professor Belkin, an expert witness in the recent US federal court case, argues that negative feelings towards homosexuals in a military unit would decrease when people among the unit identified with that group - a phenomenon he describes as "familiarity breeds tolerance".
In that same court case, Judge Phillips also considered (among loads of other evidence pointing in the same direction) a Rand Corporation study which concluded that although social cohesion within units might sometimes be affected by openly homosexual members, task cohesion was not affected, and therefore had little to no effect on unit military performance.
No one is saying gay soldiers must come-out to their peers. It's just that it should not cost them their job if they do. It should be up to each individual in this situation to make a personal judgment.
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