Gays should stay in closet, panel told 'Openness' called a threat to military

April 01, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Two military researchers gave valuable support yesterday to top Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee who believe that homosexuals should remain in the military only if they stay in the closet.

The researchers, including the civilian chief of military psychiatry the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, told the committee that homosexuals who do not openly acknowledge their sexual orientation pose no threat to the shared sense of "family" that makes an infantry platoon, aviation squadron or other military unit a cohesive, effective fighting force.

"The issue is openness or non-openness, not status alone," said David H. Marlowe of the Walter Reed institute, who conducted field studies of morale and "cohesion" among Army units that fought in the Persian Gulf war.

So many Americans are unwilling to tolerate homosexuality that heterosexual soldiers could not be expected to accept avowed gays and go into combat with them, he said. "When the general culture is ready for something, then the Army will accept it," he said.

The testimony came on the second in a series of hearings by the committee on one of the most explosive issues on President Clinton's agenda: lifting the military's ban on gays. Mr. Clinton has vowed to sign an executive order to scrap the policy on or shortly after July 15.

The sharpest exchanges occurred when Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who staunchly opposes the Clinton proposal, attacked Lawrence Korb, a former defense official in the Reagan administration and the only witness this week to favor a repeal of the ban.

Mr. Korb, a former assistant defense secretary for manpower who has repeatedly advocated lifting the ban, said a change in policy "is likely to have less short-term impact on cohesion" than racial integration or the inclusion of women.

He conceded that "unit cohesion" could be disrupted by the presence of avowed homosexuals and that initially separate codes of conduct on military bases that impose more stringent restrictions on homosexual behavior than on heterosexual behavior may be required.

But Mr. Korb argued that strong leadership and training would enable the military to overcome any problem.

Mr. McCain repeatedly challenged Mr. Korb's testimony, saying at one point: "You're being a bit disingenuous."

Two Democrats, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, challenged William Darryl Henderson, former commander of the Army Research Institute, who testified that combat soldiers shun or separate anyone who does not conform to their "basic cultural and political values." Mr. Henderson also said any "deviation from unit norms, values or expected behavior" could render the whole combat unit ineffective.

Most members of the committee, like its chairman, Sen. Sam Nunn, oppose the lifting of the ban. The influential Georgia Democrat forced Mr. Clinton in January to postpone final action on the issue. But Mr. Nunn suggested this week that he could support a partial change in policy that would compel homosexuals to stay in the closet if they want to stay in the armed services.

This approach, which also would permanently stop the military from asking about sexual orientation, already has strong support among members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The panel's second-ranking Democrat, Sen. Jim Exon of Nebraska, also has said that homosexuals in the ranks should remain hidden. "I do not believe 'open' gays in the military will work," he said yesterday.

Mr. Henderson, a Vietnam veteran, and Mr. Marlowe, who has a doctorate in social anthropology, told senators there were extensive studies showing that a military unit becomes polarized and ineffective in combat whenever an individual places his "identity" or self-interest ahead of the group.

But gay rights activists said they were heartened by this testimony, noting that the researchers agreed with Mr. Korb that gays were not only capable of conforming to military values and standards, but could serve as effective military leaders.

"When someone insists on being defined by his sexuality as opposed to being a soldier, there's a problem there," said retired Army Col. Chuck Magness, a Baltimore native who commanded an aviation company in Vietnam.

Mr. Magness, who is homosexual, added: "It's leadership that will make this [policy change] work."

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