Gay values are truly conservative

Andrew Sullivan

February 10, 1993|By Andrew Sullivan

PERHAPS the most depressing part of the last few weeks has been how predictably the politics of the military gay ban played itself out.

By and large, lifting the ban was portrayed as a liberal measure, prompted by the usual interest groups and framed within a crude paradigm of civil rights. The opposition rested its final argument on the simple fear of homosexuals, on those intangible emotions the Joint Chiefs of Staff describe as morale.

But there is another way of looking at the issue: Lifting the ban is essentially a conservative measure. It is not a radical attempt to remake society but a pragmatic effort to react to a change that is already taking place: the presence of openly gay people in the military. The values that gays in the military are espousing, patriotism and public service, are traditional values.

Certainly, radicals always suspected homosexuals who wanted to join the military, regarding them as foolishly embracing a system that oppressed them.

For many years after the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in New York, which gave birth to the gay rights movement, the military issue wasn't on the official gay rights agenda at all. For those who came from the anti-war movement, it was anathema.

It was only in the late '80s that some argued that it should be placed at the forefront of the battle for gay civil equality.

But the military issue came to the fore not because of political leadership but because of the gay people in the military who refused to compromise their integrity any longer. Many were of the generation that came out after AIDS, a sober generation, more determined than ever to stand up to brutalization but more realistic about how to overcome it.

Unlike many of their elders, they did not want to rebel against mainstream society but to join it as full equals. These are the people who became the unlikely heroes of the new war.

And this is, perhaps, the cruelest irony of the ban -- that it has singled out those gay Americans who are among the most patriotic, the most committed to living lives that, in other people, would be at the heart of the notion of civic virtue. Some -- Joseph Steffan, Margarethe Cammermyer -- are better known than others.

I think of my first boyfriend, Joe, the adopted son of a military family from Nebraska, whose devotion to his father, a three-star general, led him into the Air Force. Joe could never talk to his family about his emotional life, never initiate the relationship that makes a family a family, because his father would have been obliged to bring charges against his own son.

Unable to sustain the lie, Joe quit and told his father who he was soon afterward. (His father reacted with compassion and respect.) I think of another friend who devoted 16 years to the Navy, rising to lieutenant commander, highly respected by his peers, who, in a medical examination, was suddenly questioned about his sexuality, blurted out the truth and is now being discharged. With four years until retirement, he will receive no benefits and have to start a new career.

And the friend who is a sergeant in an elite Army unit, who listens daily to his recruits say they will kill the first soldier in their unit who says he's gay and who told me that even if the ban is lifted, he would not have the "moral courage" to come out.

When I am asked by people why I believe homosexuality is an involuntary disposition, constitutive of a person's deepest identity and therefore deserving of respect and civil equality, I wish I could show them the lives of these people. These are the alleged radicals whose devotion to their country was strong enough to risk severing their livelihoods and disrupting their lives if their sexuality were discovered.

Within any other minority, these people would be heroes to conservatives. Their private conduct would be deemed irrelevant their public service. Just as in 1948, when the Republicans campaigned for racial integration of the military, Republicans, of all people, should resist reactionaries on the right who believe gay people are condemned by nature to second-class status and reactionaries on the left who call for gay men and women to abandon the very society they most want to join.

Some, to their credit, have done so, among them William F. Buckley Jr. and Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato. Even Newt Gingrich a year ago voiced concern for gay soldiers' right to privacy before succumbing to political expediency and supporting the ban.

Conservatives should also see that lifting the restrictions is not a radical experiment that could risk military competence.

It is a reaction to a problem already consuming the military as young lesbians and gay men refuse to acquiesce in their humiliation, and is a change that would be unlikely to accelerate the number of gay people prepared to come out in the barracks. (In Canada, where the ban was lifted three months ago, not a single person has come out.)

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