Separate and unequal for gays, too

Elaine Scarry

February 19, 1993|By Elaine Scarry

THE debate over gays in the military has led many people to worry that gay men and women lack not only military rights but civil rights as well.

This is borne out by the history of military rights in this country, which is closely entwined with civil rights.To have one is to have the other; to lack one is to lack the other.

The 26th Amendment, for example, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971, was argued primarily on the basis that the Vietnam generation had shown its authority to vote at 18 both by fighting in Vietnam and by deliberating about the war on university campuses.

More significant, the 15th Amendment, which in 1870 extended the vote to former slaves and all people of color, was urged because 180,000 blacks had fought for the Union during the Civil War. This argument was used in Congress, as well as in Republican newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Tribune during the 1868 presidential campaign.

In fact, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had itself been a brilliant merging of two separate acts, a proclamation of liberty and an invitation to enter the military. It reads: "I do order and declare, that all persons held as slaves . . . are and hereafter shall be free . . . and I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States, to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service."

In the 19th Amendment, civil and military rights were again merged in women's suffrage. Suffrage pageants often focused on songs such as "Onward, Glorious Soldiers." Suffrage plays repeatedly depicted women as capable of bearing arms and protecting themselves. Articles urging suffrage coupled the contribution of women in World War I with the coming vote, which was granted in 1920.

The histories of the 15th, 19th and 26th amendments suggest that the absence of military rights and responsibilities for gays and lesbians also carries with it a loss of civil rights. Permitting the question of gays in the military to turn on other people's like or dislike of them is already a stark infringement of their civil rights.

The arguments that have been voiced against gays in the military should embarrass us all. Are we really being asked to believe that our soldiers are brave enough to face armed enemies but will somehow fold if they have to inhabit the same space as a gay soldier? If a heterosexual soldier cannot bear to look in the face of someone different from himself, shouldn't he be disqualified from the much more difficult duties of protecting the country?

What standard of courage has been presented to the public by the odd assortment of outcries offered as explanation for why we must continue to suppress the military rights and responsibilities of gays?

If our soldiers (as well as our chiefs of staff and congressional representatives) don't aspire to the highest ethic of comradeship, it is hard to envision how the country will keep its capacity for self-defense.

The fabric of civil society is jeopardized by an arrangement that gives heterosexuals and homosexuals separate legal statuses, and, by prohibiting gays from military bases, places them in separate physical spaces. The nation has already learned the lesson that "separate-but-equal" is a falsehood. Should we, as Justice John Harlan once asked about the separation of blacks and whites on railway cars, ask heterosexual soldiers to carry folding screens so they don't have to see or be seen by homosexual soldiers? If so, Harlan argued, we in effect are carrying the same folding screens into our voting booths, our legislative halls and our jury rooms.

In this attempt to distribute military rights justly, President Clinton has acted with vision and grace. Let's hope the population, military and civilian alike, soon gives him back the

same salute.

Elaine Scarry is a professor of English at Harvard University and author of "The Body in Pain" (Oxford University Press).

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