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A Sad Burden Which We Already Share

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More than one thousand U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq since the beginning of hostilities in the spring of 2003. Over 7,000 have been wounded. There is no accurate count of the number of dead Iraqi soldiers, insurgents and civilians, but the number surely is in the tens of thousands.

In the face of Pres. George W. Bush’s clear antagonism toward the demands for equal rights by gay Americans, our community is scrambling to make certain that the verdict this November affirms our dignity as individuals and citizens.

But we must also make clear this fall that our community has already shared in the most dire burdens of citizenship.

Bush has placed no time limit on our mission in Iraq. Even as he criticizes the president’s prosecution of the war as “catastroph­ic,” Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, will say only that, if elected, his goal is to withdraw U.S. troops within the four years of his first term.

Clearly, Americans are going to be dying in Iraq for some time to come, and that is unacceptable. This issue should be at the forefront of the race for the White House, but it is not and that is the failure not only of the president, but also his challenger.

Still, as we look to Kerry to lay out his credentials for becoming the nation’s commander in chief, he needs to make clear his intention to recognize the contribution that gay and lesbian soldiers have made and the losses they have endured by ending the barrier on them serving openly in the U.S. military.

It is the right thing to do by a constituency certain to deliver him its overwhelming support.

But, more importantly, it is one of the ways in which Kerry can demonstrate that he will bring sure, steady, consistent and smart leadership to this nation’s security and foreign policy.

Former Pres. Bill Clinton, whose stumbling in 1993 landed us in the mess of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, may seem an odd example to point to in this discussion, but in fact, as with so many other issues, he demonstrated an artful and persuasive way of talking about gay rights on those few occasions when he took up the matter.

“America cannot afford to waste one person,” Clinton repeated in many speeches in which he talked about the irrational burden discrimination of any type imposed on our nation, its economy and its progress.

At a time when young American soldiers are making extraordinary sacrifices in Iraq, even though the current administration has failed to show that those sacrifices serve the effort to stem terrorism, what appeal could win broader support than the notion that America cannot afford to waste one person?

But wasting people we are.

According to statistics compiled by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian soldiers, almost 10,000 members of the military were expelled under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy from 1994 through 2003. In a story first broken by the New Republic in the fall of 2002, on which Gay City News did significant follow-up reporting during 2003, the military expelled more than three dozen linguistic specialists trained in Arabic and other Middle Eastern and Asian languages because they ran afoul of a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy vigorously pursued by their commanders.

The Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (CSSMM) at the University of California at Santa Barbara did a Freedom of Information request earlier this year that unearthed official data collected on those discharged, including their job specialties. As troop requirements began to overwhelm available military resources earlier this summer, nearly 5,600 members of the Individual Ready Reserve—former soldiers—were called up to fill the gap. According to Dr. Aaron Belkin, CSSMM’s director, SLDN reviewed the data his group uncovered and established that many of the job categories for which IRR troops were called back would more than have been filled by the gay and lesbian soldiers who had been discharged.

This “back door draft” is likely to continue, and the untold number of Americans who are family, friends, neighbors and co-workers of those civilians involuntarily pressed back into service would certainly be interested to learn that this might not be necessary but for the irrational bigotry of U.S. military policy.

In fact, polling has proven that the American public is solidly behind the notion that gay and lesbian troops, like those in 24 other nations, should be able to serve openly. In a Gallup Poll released last December, 79 percent of the nation endorsed an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That support was relatively uniform across demographic groups, contrary to notions of a blue state/red state divide on such “social issues.” Ending the ban enjoys the support of 73 percent of men, 74 percent of Southerners, 68 percent of those over 65, and even 68 percent of self-identified conservatives.

In Belkin’s view, getting out front on ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is “a very safe issue for [Kerry], one that he would not have to hem and haw on.”

American troops in integrated command units in the Iraq coalition have served under openly gay British officers. Prominent retired senior military officials, most visibly former Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark, have spoken out about the wasted resources that the current policy entails, and two retired brigadier generals—Keith Kerr and Virgil A. Richard—and one retired admiral, Alan M. Steinman, disclosed that they served throughout their careers as gay men. Belkin said that standing up for open military service at a time of national security anxieties could become a Democratic “wedge” issue, in the same way that advocacy of stem cell research has become.

And in the case of Kerry, Belkin argued, pushing on the military ban issue allows him to demonstrate consistency that extends back 11 years, when the Massachusetts Democrat was among the most forceful in arguing that compromise would not work and that the ban on gay service had to go completely.

Ethan Geto, the longtime New York gay political activist, who has raised funds and spoken on behalf of the Kerry campaign, argues that advancing the discussion on ending the gay soldier ban is good politics for the Democratic nominee, and, in fact, the kind of bold gesture needed in what he termed a “lackluster”campaign.

“One can do two things that seem on the face of it contradictory, though they are not,’ Geto said. “It would be a signal to his base that he holds liberal values dear to his heart but also show that he would be a smart commander in chief. There are very few issues that can do both of those things.”

Despite the expulsions under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, thousands of other gay and lesbian soldiers continue to serve, with an unknown and perhaps unknowable number killed or wounded in Iraq. Those soldiers serve under the fear of exposure and harassment, an untenable situation that in recent years led to at least two homophobic murders in the military—of Army Pfc. Barry Winchell in 1999 and of Navy Petty Officer Allen Schindler in 1992.

In response to a question from Gay City News several weeks ago, Kerry, appearing at Manhattan’s Cooper Union, reaffirmed his unequivocal support for ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

As we all face an uncertain and risky future in Iraq and on national security issues generally, the Democratic candidate needs to speak out about guarenteeing that all Americans can serve openly, in dignity, and free from the harassment that has too often scarred the lives of gay and lesbian soldiers.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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