Dec 3, 2010

The Long History of Gays Not in the Military

Yesterday and today on Capitol Hill, the leaders of the United States military are testifying that they believe openly gay soldiers should be allowed to serve. While John McCain is doing his best to show how bigoted he really is, leaders of the effort to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell are furiously organizing to pass repeal legislation in the Senate before the end of the year.

What has gotten a little lost in the politicking is that repeal would be not just the end of seventeen years of Don't Ask, Don't Tell - it would be the end of a century-long effort by the U.S. military to identify, prosecute, and exclude gay, gay-perceived, and gender-deviant service-men and -women. Margot Canaday describes this history brilliantly in The Straight State, in which she shows a bumbling early-20th-century bureaucracy desperate to rid the military of deviants - while not quite being able to put its finger on what, exactly, deviance was, or why it was so bad. By World War II the military had figured out what it thought homosexuality was and how to find homosexuals - by launching full-scale investigations into their private lives and fostering gossip mongering among soldiers.

Military leaders used this information to expel gay soldiers and exclude them from one of the largest welfare systems the United States has ever created: the G.I. Bill, which offered economic and educational benefits to those who had served in World War II. During the Cold War, exclusion of gay men and women from the military continued and expanded into other branches of the federal government. During the McCarthy era, more people were fired from the State Department for supposed homosexual tendencies than for Communist tendencies.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell was supposed to have been a compromise solution to this by allowing gay people to serve in the military without threat of expulsion. It has not turned out that way. So when Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says during Congressional testimony, "I’ve been serving with gays and lesbians my whole career,” and when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates calls DADT repeal a "matter of urgency," let's take a moment to reflect on the long and bigoted history that has led up to this moment. But let's also not fail to ensure that, when gay men and women are allowed to serve openly for the first time in U.S. history, that they are treated equally and fairly by all those with whom they serve.

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