Harassing gays is common in military, Pentagon finds

More than a third report witnessing or becoming victims of such action

March 25, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Anti-gay harassment is widespread in the military, according to a Pentagon survey released yesterday, with 37 percent of those surveyed saying they have either witnessed or been victims of harassment, based on suspected homosexuality, in the past year.

Few -- 16 percent -- of those who encountered harassment reported it. Those who said they would not report anti-gay harassment said they feared retaliation against themselves -- or against those being harassed -- by fellow service members or their superiors.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said yesterday, adding he would set up a committee of top civilian and uniformed Pentagon leaders to recommend ways to fix the problem. "The incidents and use of abusive language are more widespread than I anticipated. I was surprised at the numbers of people who said they saw some evidence of harassment."

Seventy-one thousand officers and enlisted personnel in all services were surveyed. Despite the troubling results, Pentagon officials expressed confidence that they could carry out the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The policy allows homosexuals to serve in the military so they long as they don't profess their sexual orientation or act on it.

"[Cohen] is determined that the military will do a better job than it has in the past," said Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman. "Dealing with attitudes is always difficult."

Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has said that as president he would scrap the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and press Congress to change the law to allow gays to serve openly. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican nominee, has said he favors keeping the policy.

The Pentagon survey was conducted at 38 defense installations worldwide. Of those questioned, 84 percent were male.

Eighty percent of the respondents said they had heard offensive speech, derogatory names, jokes or remarks about homosexuals in the past 12 months. Eighty-five percent said they believed that such comments were tolerated to some extent at their bases or on their ships; 29 percent said such behavior was tolerated "to a large or very large extent."

Thirty-seven percent said they felt that such behavior, which they either witnessed or experienced, had risen to the level of harassment based on perceived homosexuality, the survey found.

Most of those incidents -- 88 percent -- involved offensive speech. Thirty-five percent said the behavior included offensive or hostile gestures. Twenty percent said anti-gay actions included threats or intimidation, 15 percent noted graffiti and 9 percent said the harassing behavior included physical assault.

"The report documents an alarming amount of anti-gay harassment," said Dixon Osburn, a co-executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a legal aid group for gays in the military. "It suggest leaders are perfectly aware of anti-gay harassment, and they're not doing anything to stop it."

Earlier this month, the network released a study suggesting that incidents of anti-gay harassment in the military more than doubled in 1999, to 968.

In the Pentagon survey, about 5 percent of the respondents said that anti-gay harassment was tolerated by someone in their chain of command, and 10 percent said it was tolerated by other members of their unit.

Seventy-eight percent of those respondents said they would feel free to report harassment of perceived homosexuals if they encountered it. The rest said they would not; 41 percent of them said they feared retaliation against themselves and 39 percent against the person being harassed. Thirty percent said they feared they would suffer retaliation by a supervisor, and 34 percent feared that a supervisor would retaliate against the person being harassed.

But those service members who have witnessed or experienced anti-gay harassment are more hesitant to come forward, the survey found. Only 16 percent of those who saw harassment firsthand reported it up the chain of command.

The others were not asked why they did not report the harassment, said Frank Rush, deputy undersecretary of defense for planning. "I don't know how to interpret that," he said.

David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian political group, said: "The commanders are clearly being perceived as not being trusted with this information. I think that sends a very chilling message."

Besides creating a committee to suggest solutions for the implementation of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the four services recently drafted enhanced training regulations.

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