The issue is bigotry

Anthony Lewis

February 01, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

OVER the last half-century Americans have come to understand that a civilized society does not mistreat people because of what they are. It is unacceptable to assault someone because he is a Jew, or deny him a job because he is black.

The question now is whether we are ready to apply that civilized standard to homosexuals. Are they to be despised and rejected because of what they are -- because of a status that nature gave them?

That is the question in the dispute over President Clinton's plan to end discrimination against homosexuals in the armed services. It is the only question. All the rest of the noise around the issue -- the talk about service morale and fighting effectiveness, the shrilling on talk shows -- is demonstrable humbug, and bigotry.

Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer won the Bronze Star in Vietnam in the Army nursing corps. She served 27 years in uniform and was chief nurse in Washington State's National Guard when the Pentagon ordered her discharged last year. Why did it do so? Because she had stated on a form that she was a lesbian.

Tracy Thorne, a Navy lieutenant (j.g.), was a navigator-bombardier, 25, first in his flight training class, a member of a jet combat squadron. Last year the Navy grounded him. Why? Because he had said on ABC's "Nightline" that he was gay.

Did the firing of Col. Cammermeyer or Lt. Thorne make our armed forces more effective? To the contrary, it removed two people of proved effectiveness. And it did so at heavy cost. The taxpayers paid $2 million to train Lt. Thorne, for example: money down the drain.

Then think of all the horror stories being told in the organized campaign of letters to Congress: Our men in the forces will not be safe from preying homosexuals, they will be embarrassed in the shower and so on. Did Col. Cammermeyer or Lt. Thorne harass anyone, bother anyone? No. They did nothing except perform superbly for our country. They were punished not for what they did but for what they are.

Or think of the story told last fall in the Washington Post by Lucian K. Truscott III, a retired Army officer. He commanded an infantry rifle company in the Korean War, and one of the company's 150 men was thought to be gay. He did one of the toughest jobs, carrying and firing a Browning Automatic Rifle, and he was killed. Others in the company, including some who had mocked him in life, cried as his body was carried off.

There have always been homosexuals in the armed forces, and there always will be. Bill Clinton's plans do not change that reality. What they do is to stop officials from wasting time and money snooping out who may be gay and then discharging soldiers who have done a good job.

The waste of money is considerable. In the last 10 years the Pentagon estimates that it spent nearly $500 million finding homosexuals, discharging them and replacing them. But the real cost is human.

The Clinton plan does not condone any improper sexual conduct. It just stops the witch hunt for people who are gay.

If sexual conduct were the real concern of the critics, they would focus on the clear and present problem. You don't have to be a genius to know what that is: assaults on women in the armed forces.

Some of the critics are military men who are genuinely worried about change -- just as the military fiercely resisted President Truman's 1948 order desegregating the forces. But in time the XTC services did a superb job of fighting racial prejudice in their ranks: the best training program of any institution in the country. I think they will respond to clear leadership on this issue, too.

The organized opposition -- highly organized -- is political. It is coming from conservative religious groups and others on the extreme right. The Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition boasts that his group shut down the telephone lines at the Capitol with its many calls. Oliver North is appealing for funds to stop the Clinton plan. Those who are truly religious might understand that God made people as they are.

In Washington, all you can hear is political calculation. Mr. Clinton should have moved slower. He should have moved faster. That is Washington: maneuver, not substance. Politics matters, but it is not the issue here. The issue is bigotry.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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