Ex-Officers: Military’s Gay Policy Outdated
February 16, 2004
235 Pinelawn, Melville, NY 11747-4250
By Arnold Abrams, Staff Writer
He has an impressive title and works amid comfortable
surroundings in the heart of the nation’s capital, but Alastair Gamble’s
job leaves him feeling bored, unhappy and unfulfilled.
“I’m just killing time,” said Gamble, 25, a
personnel specialist for a government contractor. “I do administrative work
in exchange for a regular paycheck that allows me to eat and live decently. It
hurts to think that, instead of doing this, I could be making a meaningful
contribution to my country.”
Which is what he wanted to do, when, after excelling in
language study at college, he enlisted in the Army, sailed through basic
training and qualified for the Army-run Defense Language Institute in
Monterey, Calif., one of the nation’s top training facilities.
Now, however, Gamble is one of 37 former soldiers—many
of whom, like him, specialized in Arabic—dismissed in recent years from the
institute for violating the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell”
policy on gays.
Gamble, caught in bed two years ago with a fellow male
linguist during a barracks sweep, also is among more than 10,000 men and women
discharged by the U.S. military since 1993, when the policy was established
during the Clinton administration.
“Those people were not discharged because they are
gay,” stressed Harvey Perritt, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Training and
Doctrine Command. “They were dismissed because they violated the policy. We
don’t ask, but if someone tells—or acts in a way that proves their
homosexuality—the policy has been violated and we have no choice.”
Perritt’s explanation gave little indication that the
policy is based on bedrock military antipathy toward gays in uniform, which
military commanders reinforced when privately rebuffing President Bill
Clinton’s wishes, reiterating the longstanding belief that the presence of
gay men and lesbians would damage unit cohesion and undermine morale.
Moreover, the decade-long controversy surrounding the
policy deepened significantly in December, when three retired flag
officers—an admiral and two Army generals—came out of the closet.
The dissident former officers said they are gay and
sharply criticized the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which they
described as fomenting needless discrimination and dissension within the armed
Their remarks also reinforced a growing belief among
fellow critics that major cultural changes during the past 10 years have
outdated the policy and made its change—or outright
“The basic premise behind this policy—that gays
present a threat to discipline and privacy—is false,” said one of the
three, Rear Adm. Alan Steinman, 58, of Washington state, who ended his 25-year
Coast Guard career in 1997 after serving four years as that service’s
surgeon general. “Gays have always been in the military, and they have not
Steinman, along with Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr and Brig. Gen.
Virgil Richard, was made available to the media by the Servicemembers Legal
Defense Network, a nonprofit advocacy group for gays, to mark the 10th
anniversary of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Their separate interviews attracted wide attention
because no officer on active duty ever openly made such statements—which
almost certainly would dash a career—and few, if any, retired officers have
privately shared such thoughts with the media.
“The point was to escalate public debate about this
policy, and we think it worked,” said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the
For example, Kerr, who retired in 1995 after a 40-year
Army career, revealed that he led a Special Forces team, one of the
military’s toughest units, during the late 1960s. “Maybe I had to prove to
myself that I could do it,” said the former officer, now 71 and living in
Santa Rosa, Calif. “But I was proud to wear the green beret, and I don’t
think anybody suspected me of being gay.”
To enhance his macho image as a soldier, Kerr made a
point of telling homophobic jokes. “If anything,” he said, “I acted like
a male chauvinist pig.”
Richard, 66, who retired from the Army in 1991 after 32
years’ service, insisted that the code of military justice, used to punish
sexual offenses committed by straight soldiers, would suffice against similar
transgressions by gays.
“The vast majority of our troops wouldn’t care and
certainly wouldn’t be affected if the current policy was eliminated,” said
the resident of Austin, Texas. “They are so much more sophisticated now than
they were 10 years ago. They’ve seen enough not to be shocked or scared.”
In addition, Steinman scoffed at policy supporters who
argue that the dissenting officers’ successful military careers is proof the
policy works. “Nonsense,” he snapped. “By effectively forcing us to
hide, this policy made us serve at tremendous personal cost.”
While not acting in concert with the other three retired
officers, Adm. John Hutson, 56, who was a judge advocate general—the top
legal officer of any service—joined their open dissent.
The former Navy officer, a heterosexual who has been
married 35 years, asserted recently in an exclusive Newsday interview that
“don’t ask, don’t tell” undermines core U.S. military values. “It
exacts a huge cost in dignity and respect from gays, who are forced to conceal
their true sexual identity,” said Hutson, who ended a 28-year naval career
several years ago to head the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H.
“It also detracts greatly from the esteem in which our military has been
held by the international community, many of whose members allow such people
Contentious from the start, the policy was a compromise,
stemming from a campaign promise made by Clinton, who said he would eliminate
the military’s ban on gays. The result was “don’t ask, don’t tell,”
which, in theory, prohibits authorities from inquiring about sexual
orientation while allowing gays to serve without fear of harassment or
expulsion as long as they don’t reveal their orientation or engage in
homosexual activity on a military base.
Reality, however, often differs from theory. Like many
compromises, the policy satisfies virtually nobody.
Advocates accuse officers of conducting “witchhunts”
against gays; some troops continue to rail against so-called “queers”
within their ranks. Clinton himself conceded the policy was “out of whack”
in 1999, after a gay soldier was bludgeoned to death by two straight troops at
Fort Campbell, Ky.
But Clinton, who declined to comment for this story, has
never offered an acceptable alternative. Nor, for that matter, has any other
public official. President George W. Bush has said that he supports the
Moreover, the dissension by outspoken officers reinforced
a theme emphasized recently by critics. Sea changes in society since 1993,
they say, have outflanked the policy—which has not been adopted by civilian
counterparts like police and fire departments, or by federal agencies like the
FBI or CIA (none of which ban openly gay members).
Critics cite, for example, the popularity of shows like
“Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” on television,
where homosexuality rarely was revealed. They also note such developments as
the granting of domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples by five
states and major corporations; the appointment of an openly gay bishop by the
American Episcopal Church, and rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the
highest court in Massachusetts, which, respectively, overturned a Texas sodomy
law and held that gay couples have a right to marry under the Massachusetts
“Such things did not exist 10 years ago and, to many
people, simply were unimaginable,” said Dixon Osburn, 39, executive director
of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “The message is clear: Change
is inevitable, and time is running out on the military’s anti-gay policy.”
In reluctant agreement is Robert Maginnis, 53, a military
consultant and television analyst. “They’re probably right,” Maginnis, a
retired Army colonel who reflects traditional military thinking, said recently
about the critics. “But that doesn’t make their views correct.”
Three years ago, after retiring from the Army and joining
the Family Research Council, a leading conservative group, Maginnis wrote that
“the reality of military life is that the high-stress, rough-and-tumble,
predominantly male military is neither for shrinking violets nor for
“I still believe that,” Maginnis said.
Although he does not openly agree or disagree with such
beliefs, which are generally associated with senior officers and
battle-hardened sergeants, sociologist Charles Moskos does not believe the
policy will be changed or eliminated anytime soon.
“The American public will agree to giving gay people
equal rights,” said Moskos, 69, a Northwestern University professor who
specializes in military issues. “But it will not support forced sexual
integration, which requires straight people to live with gays in intimate
conditions like barracks or tents.”
Moskos, publicly credited by Clinton for playing a key
role in the formulation of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” described the
compromise policy as “the worst possible system except for any other.”
Equally unwilling to criticize current guidelines is John
Allen Williams, a political science professor at Loyola University of Chicago,
who also specializes in military matters. “I think it is a relatively benign
way to buy time and implement the traditional ban of gays,” said Williams,
58, who recently ended a 30-year career as a naval reserve officer. “I
consider it a reasonable implementation of the law.”
Critics of the Pentagon policy often forget, or neglect
to mention, that it is a law passed by Congress. And that changing or
eliminating it requires congressional action.
Which is why most advocates for gays, while asserting
that the current policy’s days are numbered, won’t speculate about how
much time is left.
“It will be many years before this issue is openly
debated on Capitol Hill,” said Grethe Cammermeyer, 61, a medal-winning
former colonel who, after serving 30 years, was discharged from the military
in 1992, one year before the policy was enacted.
Her sin? The long-divorced mother of four had revealed,
while being interviewed for security clearance, that she is a lesbian.
“Given the point of the interview, I naively thought I should be completely
truthful,” added Cammermeyer, who successfully fought her expulsion in
court—and who in 1995 was played by actress Glenn Close in “Serving in
Silence,” an award-winning television movie based on her case.
“Legislative action on this is not imminent,” said
Aaron Belkin, 37, director of California-based Center for the Study of Sexual
Minorities in the Military, who asserted that neither Republicans nor
Democrats in Congress support a change. “If Republicans talk about
preserving the ban on gays, they alienate minorities,” he explained. “If
they talk about lifting it, they alienate conservatives. So they keep
Political self-interest, Belkin added, guarantees similar
inaction by Democrats. “Most of them will say privately that the policy
should be changed,” he said, “but they’re afraid to appear weak on
national security. So they, too, stay silent.”
What about senior members of the military, many of
whom—unlike their younger counterparts—sincerely believe the open presence
of gays would affect unit cohesion? “Sure, some people genuinely believe
that national security requires such discrimination,” Belkin said. “But
some people also genuinely believe the Earth is flat.”
Will the policy ever change? “Probably, but not before
five to 10 years,” said Gen. Kerr, one of the dissenting retired officers.
“It will require continued lobbying, continued education of the public and a
lot of political effort.” He added: “But what really is needed is the
passage of time. This is not an issue for younger Americans. The problem lies
with older people—particularly senior military officers—and the answer is
let them go on, get out and, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, slowly fade
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