Last edited: March 28, 2004

Ex-Officers: Military’s Gay Policy Outdated

Newsday, February 16, 2004
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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 forces.

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 elimination—inevitable.

“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 been disruptive.”

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 advocacy group.

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 to serve.”

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 policy.

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 state constitution.

“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 homosexuals.”

“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.”

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 silent.”

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 away.”

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