Another kind of closet

Anna Quindlen

June 30, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

SOMETIME in the next few weeks the president will decide whether to lift the ban on gay men and lesbians in the military. Faced with considerable opposition in Congress, it looks today as though he is likely to settle for a compromise that is politically safe. But it also looks as though that compromise is un-American.

The new policy for allowing gay people to serve in the armed forces -- as they have done since this country was founded -- is known in shorthand as "Don't ask, don't tell." This gives the illusion that sexuality in the service will become a private matter. Illusory it is. Several of the proposed compromises would replace the outright ban on gay soldiers with the creation of a permanent cadre of second-class military men and women.

The "don't ask" part makes sense. Don't ask potential recruits about their sexual orientation. And don't waste defense dollars digging up rumors of young lesbians in love.

But "don't tell" is something else again. Some of the brass want "don't tell" to include personal conversations. In other words, if Joe wants to tell a fellow soldier that he and Paul are an item, Joe might be accused of a forbidden act called "declaring" his homosexuality.

Another possible compromise allows gay soldiers to serve as long as they don't engage in homosexual conduct, on or off base. The Pentagon would become a cousin of the Catholic Church: homosexuals will be tolerated as long as they don't homosex.

Well, any American who has become accustomed to the idea that private conversations are private and what we do in our bedrooms is nobody's business can see there's something peculiar here. Heterosexual soldiers will be able to talk about their love life and to live it, too. Gay men and lesbians will become a special silenced underclass, nominally accepted but constantly on guard. Call it compromise; it is still a closet.

The dialogue about gays in the military has not been about gay people at all. Oh, it would have been if it could have been. If some soldiers of Sodom were accused of putting the moves on 21-year-old same-sex recruits, those opposed to lifting the ban would surely have outed them.

But that's not the real story of gays in the American military. They are sad stories, often, of good soldiers who served their country and were badly served by it. They bring to mind the inscription on Sgt. Leonard Matlovich's tombstone: "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."

The debate about gays in the military has been instead about how straight people feel about gay people. It has been about the need to maintain order and discipline, which has been shorthand for suggesting that straight soldiers hate and fear gay people so much that their esprit de corps will crumble with the end to sexual subterfuge.

There's even talk that the ban protects gay people, that they would not be safe from attacks by fellow soldiers if they came out of the closet. This is like saying that the Tailhook incident would never have happened if we'd only let gender prejudice be our guide and kept women out of the service. The threat of violence is no argument against lifting the ban. It is an argument for weeding out thugs whose idea of battle is beating up one of their own.

I've been told in many, many letters that I can't possibly understand the culture of the military because I've never served. Herewith, a source who has, and with distinction:

"The military didn't want blacks in integrated units, or women, and now it doesn't want gays. Well, a soldier may not like every order, or every member of his or her unit, but a good soldier will always follow orders -- and, in time, respect those who get the job done."

That's former Sen. Barry Goldwater writing recently in the Washington Post, advocating the overturn of the ban and reminding conservatives of their basic tenet, the one that seems to elude the movement nowadays, "the belief that government should stay out of people's private lives."

Congress is not with the president on lifting the ban. But on this issue, a matter not of numbers crunching but of civil rights, the president ultimately must live, not with Congress, but with conscience. He should not endorse an ignoble compromise that merely creates another kind of closet. This one's not for the opinion polls. It's for the history books.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.