Freedom to Serve

Congress and the military have been hiding under the cover of the ambiguous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy since the Clinton administration enacted it in 1994, arguing the simple solution doesn’t cost that much to enforce. But according to a recent study commissioned by the University of California, the first 10 years of “don’t ask, don’t tell” cost the federal government well over $364 million in the dismissal of over 9,500 openly gay troops.

Jennifer Hsu/Guardian

Now that “don’t ask, don’t tell” has proved to be imperfect, pressure is finally on the government to reverse this outdated policy. Allowing homosexuals free rein in our armed forces is the right thing to do to both bolster our military’s enlistment rates and uphold the core values of our Constitution. But lifting “don’t ask, don’t tell” without first evaluating how to best integrate homosexual troops into the military could create dire consequences.

In other countries, such as Britain, Canada and Australia, gay troops have been incorporated into the military without any great problems or fanfare. But in the United States we need to get used to the fact that gay service members, if accepted, enhance and strengthen our military’s core just like any competent soldier does.

However, if Congress suddenly changed course and reversed the policy, the military’s precarious recruitment situation worsen. Straight servicemen question what — if any — special rules homosexuals would have to abide by to avoid uncomfortable advances. Others worry that active servicemembers could feel threatened by an influx of gay troops and potentially create an unwelcoming place for homosexuals, possibly dissuading some from signing up.

The military is notoriously conservative, and it’s not unreasonable to expect some resistance to sudden change, but the assumptions about how straight soldiers would react to openly gay comrades are just those: assumptions. Where is the evidence that gay soldiers unnerve their fellows so horribly that we must keep them closeted? Soldiers might react negatively, but they might also not care. We don’t know which reaction any particular service member will have, nor whether they would allow their reaction to affect their performance in the unit any more than other inter-unit personal problems.

In any case, the idea of preventing eligible men and women from serving not because of their qualifications, but because others might be bothered by them, is ludicrous. With patience, a military relatively free of homophobia is possible.

While no serious effort has yet been made to evaluate how a post-“don’t ask, don’t tell” military might fare, there have been small advances. A new four-volume series on the cultural and psychological dimensions of the American military includes a chapter on the service of gay troops. Titled “Sexual Orientation and Military Service: Prospects for Organization and Individual Change in the United States,” the chapter details the history and social contexts of gays and lesbians in the military.

The chapter states that many homosexuals have been serving in the armed forces since World War II, and while some were detected at induction, they were often let through because of the great need for troops. “During the war,” it says, “some military physicians and social scientists noted that many homosexual soldiers functioned as effectively as their heterosexual counterparts.” But for decades these findings were ignored because they represented “a minority view that conflicted with official policy.” Official policy at the time did not disallow officials from directly asking about a soldier’s sexuality, and that was so for the same reason we hear today: Gay troops hurt morale.

The new chapter in the series “Military Life: The Psychology of Serving in Peace and Combat” is a small but important first step in the process of integrating homosexuals into our military.

Creating an equitable environment, which would allow homosexual service members to contribute at their full potential, will take time even if the rosiest of predictions about the tolerance of straight troops are true. Like other times of great social change, things will happen more slowly than many activists would like.

The Iraq war and our various other overseas commitments are creating a desperate need for more troops. Some might insist that this reality should preclude a new policy change that has might degrade troop morale, as critics charge including open homosexuals will do. But in times of war, when every able man and woman is needed, it is insulting to the intelligence and maturity of our soldiers to believe they wouldn’t choose to have more trained comrades to back them up over the assurance that at least the ones allowed in aren’t gay.