On gay issue, military’s history will repeat itself

Services bungled integrating women and will make a mess of lifting ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

April 19, 2010|By Bruce Fleming

The lifting of the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell," the ban on "out" gays serving, is now all but certain. All but certain, too, is that the military will make the same morale-busting mistakes with the integration of openly gay service members that it has made with the integration of women. This will make an already difficult situation far worse.

The military is staffed by "alpha" types who think more force means greater success. That means it frequently over-reaches and has to be called back. The military also tends to go into a counterproductive "enforcer" mode with its own people, even when what is being crammed down their throats is a policy the military itself resolutely opposed — until the day it didn't. The integration of "out" gays into the military is such a policy.

The integration of women into the armed forces is an earlier — and still current — example of this sort of destructive "do it or else" change of policies within ranks. The recent firing of Capt. Holly Graf of the USS Cowpens for incidences of what were alleged to be abusive behavior was explained by a source quoted in the Navy Times: "The Navy has a vested interest in pushing women up. … We will do anything to please these senior women. Effectively, they can hold the Navy hostage."

This seems counter-intuitive. The military resisted promoting women for many years; the Navy resisted admitting women to Annapolis until forced to do so by Congress in 1976. But once women were in, the military pulled a 180-degree switch. Anyone who questioned their presence was the problem.

The Annapolis Capital determined after going through years of documents (forced from a grudging academy through a Freedom of Information Act request) that the academy's "justice" was tilted toward women. In the early 1990s, the Navy instituted what it called SAVI, for Sexual Assault Victim Intervention. All hands undergo yearly mandatory "training." The laudable purpose is to reduce the incidence of sexual assault in the fleet. Yet, because it has been applied in so ham-fisted and aggressive a fashion, it has created untold morale problems among male service members.

The problem is that the V stands for "victim," which presupposes that a person, usually a woman, who claims to have been assaulted was in fact a "victim." Logically speaking, this means the accused person is thus an "assailant." Men resent this and seethe inwardly. Outwardly, they have to say, "Yes, ma'am." But morale drops precipitously.

For years the military opposed gays, then out gays. Now, it's likely to become as clumsy a defender of the rights of gays as it previously was a campaigner against them. The assumption nowadays among some civilians, especially liberal civilians, is that if the military screams at having to implement the decisions of its civilian paymasters, that's a good thing. It's not.

Nor is the integration of gay soldiers and sailors comparable to the integration of soldiers of color, which some service members also protested initially. Gender matters more fundamentally than skin color. We have color-integrated washrooms and sports teams, but not gender-integrated ones.

People in the military are not gender-blind, nor should they become so. Men identify with the sheer testosterone of leaders in combat situations. And submarines, where the decision has recently been made to billet women, are notoriously close quarters. So it's both false and hugely destructive of morale to assume that the only reason a man could object to a female commander, or shipmates, is that he's sexist.

Similarly, it's wrong to assume that the fact that most 19-year-old sailors would rather have a straight commander means they're homophobic rubes. It's highly unlikely that a sheltered young lance corporal from Idaho will bond as well with an openly gay Marine captain as he would with a straight one. And then there are the showers and the close quarters in the racks. We have to acknowledge these objections too; we make them worse by denying them. Yet based on its track record, the military will tell its soldiers and sailors that they're the problem with their objections. This won't be true, and the very act of forcing change will sap morale — and defense capabilities.

The military need not screw things up this badly. Many straight boys simply need to have explained to them that not all gay men want them sexually. There is no evidence that gays are more likely to be rapists than straights are; and everybody can learn not to act on whatever s/he is thinking or feeling during working hours. However, there are situations where sexual orientation would pose a problem, and the military would be wise to acknowledge this.

Advice to the civilians: Lose your exasperation with those in the military who are trying to say why they think integrating openly gay service members will be difficult. Instead, listen to them. We may be able to address some of their concerns; some may simply have to be acknowledged. But even just saying, "Yep, you're right. We'll have to deal with these problems as they arise" is better than saying: "Shut up, you racist, homophobic chauvinist." That's what the military — becoming the enforcer of its civilian masters — will certainly say. Stand by for the drop in morale.

Bruce Fleming has been a professor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis for 23 years. His e-mail is flemingannapolis@comcast.net.

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