Making Love, Making War

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 17, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- After a string of grisly stories about sexual harassment and sexual assaults in the military more than a few people were ready to ban heterosexual men from the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Saner heads prevailed. Not every naval officer turned into Tailhooker at the sight of a woman. In the Persian Gulf War only a handful of men got out of hand. Anyway, it wasn't sexual orientation that was the problem. It was sexual behavior. Which brings us to the current question about homosexuals in the military.

Over the past week, the armed forces have gotten messages from two branches of government, the judiciary and the executive, that the long-standing ban against gay and lesbian soldiers and sailors is coming down. First a federal district judge issued a temporary order making the Navy reinstate Keith Meinhold, a sailor discharged last August after revealing he is gay. The judge said it was likely that a trial would find the ban unconstitutional.

Then, Bill Clinton reaffirmed his promise to lift the rule after he takes office. He can issue an executive order, the way Truman did when he integrated the army racially in 1948.

We are witnessing another confrontation between the military and the civilian worlds, between the culture of diversity and the culture of uniformity. Anyone who has done time in the military can tell you that the armed forces are designed to stamp out differences in boot camp democracy. It is less interested in preaching individualism than in teaching order.

But anyone who has ever seen one of those World War II movies -- with ''Tex,'' ''O'Malley'' and ''Brooklyn'' fighting the Nazis -- also knows that even in the 1940s, the military was dealing with diversity. In the 1950s, when the South was still segregated, the military was newly integrated. And in the 1990s, it has been on the front lines as well as the rear guard of advancing women. The pressure to accept homosexual soldiers presents another challenge in this long line.

That doesn't make it easy. The traditional hostility to gays -- to gay men at least -- comes straight from the playground taunt: ''Sissy!'' Prejudice linked gay men and all women in a sisterhood of weakness that disqualified them from fighting ''like a man.'' Homosexuals were exempt from the draft and, if discovered, driven out of service. In 10 years, some 17,000 men and women -- including top guns and top nurses -- have been dismissed.

Military leaders acknowledge that there are thousands of homosexuals in the military, fighting and leading. The image of gay men and lesbians as security risks has been debunked. The last, tenuous but tenacious argument left is that removing the ban would somehow give permission for ''openly homosexual'' behavior. And that it would undermine morale and discipline.

In a careful and tempered statement last year, Gen. Colin Powell put it this way: ''It is difficult in a military setting where there is no privacy, where you don't get a choice of association, where you don't get a choice of where you live, to introduce a group of individuals who are proud, brave, loyal good Americans but who favor a homosexual life style.''

When you parse this thought, it consists of two ideas. One is that both prejudice and homophobia are so rampant that the mere presence of an acknowledged gay or lesbian is unacceptably disruptive. That, I am afraid, is what they said about mixing black soldiers with white.

The other idea is that homosexuals are sexual predators who put other soldiers sharing quarters and showers at risk. This seems to be a particular worry to men, yet there is no evidence that gay men are more sexually aggressive than straight men. This may be killing with faint praise, but it's true.

The military has every right to make rules and regulations about behavior. There may be good reason for a military ''incest taboo'' among shipmates and prohibitions within platoons. There are rules against harassment. But it's still the sexual behavior that counts, not the sexual orientation.

This fall Canada dropped its ban. Now, its our turn. The military should worry about how its people make war, not love.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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