Gays in the Military: Middle Ground

PETER A. JAY

January 31, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.-- Thirty years ago last summer, at an age and in an era when all things seemed possible, I was one of about a hundred Peru-bound Peace Corps volunteers who assembled for training at Cornell University.

Andes. Mike's sound and sensible advice about Latin America would prove very helpful to many of those who trained with him.

In Peru, Mike and I were assigned to different parts of the country, but stayed in touch. He was by all accounts an excellent volunteer, thanks not only to his fluency in Spanish but to his gentle and understanding manner. In the Peace Corps he worked as a practical nurse in rural public health programs, and I halfway thought he might decide to go to medical school when he returned to the States.

As it turned out, he chose another profession, and did well at it. We wrote to one another from time to time, mostly exchanging news about mutual Peace Corps friends. When he wrote me some years ago to announce his homosexuality, I wasn't especially surprised. I did feel sad for him, but that was mitigated by the relief so apparent in his letter. He sounded like a man who was free of a great burden at last.

I find myself thinking of Mike as the debate proceeds on opening the American military to declared homosexuals. This seems to me a bad idea, for reasons not at all homophobic. But there may be a solution, which Mike's case helps outline.

With his sexual preferences kept resolutely private and his conduct absolutely unimpeachable, Mike was a successful Peace Corps volunteer, able to do with distinction the difficult work his government assigned him. He served well and went home, when his tour was up, with pride.

Had he chosen to announce while still in Peru that he was gay, however, he would have discredited his country and probably endangered himself. Andean campesinos do not take their standards of political correctness from the editorial pages of enlightened American newspapers. That's regrettable, no doubt, but it's so.

There are close parallels with this situation in the armed services. Soldiers and sailors who consider themselves homosexual can serve effectively only as long as they keep those preferences private. When they make them public, there are likely to be various unpleasant consequences.

President Clinton, who pledged to end restrictions on homosexuals in the military, never served in uniform and doesn't know this from his own experience. But by now he knows it intellectually, has been warned of its implications, and is aware that he's in a dilemma of his own creation. Fortunately, there's a practical and equitable way out.

The late Hugo Black, one of the Supreme Court's great defenders of individual liberties, remarked once that "I believe PTC with Jefferson that it is time enough for government to step in to regulate people when they do something, not when they say something." And that's the solution for the armed forces.

By all means, help out the Commander in Chief and rescind the ban on gays in the service. But implement, simultaneously, a new, stringent code of accepted sexual conduct for all military personnel whether on duty, in the barracks or on leave while in uniform. This code should apply, of course, to straights as well as gays. Violators should be subject not to criminal penalties but to immediate discharge.

A military that can adapt to women, and benefit enormously from their abilities, can surely adapt to homosexuals, too. In fact, in a practical way, it already has.

The gay-rights contention is that 10 percent of the population, and by implication 10 percent of the military as well, is homosexual. That's unsupported and surely tremendously inflated, but there's no doubt that there are significant numbers of gay men and women in the services who are quietly and without harassment going about their careers.

As Mr. Justice Black suggests, it is deeds that ought to matter, not words. If the military were to cease asking recruits to state their sexual preference, little harm would result. But just as it shouldn't condone unacceptable sexual behavior between men and women, it shouldn't be asked to adapt to overt homosexual conduct either.

With a little good will on both sides, this issue ought to be soluble. As Edmund Burke wrote in 1775, urging Britain to reconcile her differences with America, "every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens, than subtle disputants."

The trouble is, some of the powerful political forces being brought to bear because of Mr. Clinton's pledge have no interest whatsoever in the happiness of the citizenry. They don't want to compromise, they want to win, even if they have to do to the armed forces what Sherman did to Georgia.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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