Sunday, December 19, 2010

DADT repeal: also kind of a big f*cking deal

Let us now toll the death knell for Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  I am not a scholar of the US gay rights movement, and am not positioned to say how significant of a milestone this is in that history.  It seems to me, though, like a big fucking deal, to borrow Joe Biden's health care quip.  I am no militarist, and have a laundry list of objections to how the United States government thinks it should deploy its military power in various parts of the world.  But I'm also realistic enough to see that the fact that great military strength and powerful economic and political motivations to throw weight around cannot be made to heel simply by saying "We don't like war and want to stay as far away from its instruments as possible."  And, for a number of reasons both so obvious and so personal that I see no reason to detail them here, I find it absurd and dangerous to say, no matter the rationale, that some perfectly capable, willing, and eligible US citizens should be forbidden to join the armed forces voluntarily.

A comment that Tenured Radical once made – I'm too lazy to search her archives for the precise link at the moment, sorry* – rang very true for me: the desire to forward political aims by staying away from military service is in some ways a class privilege that not everyone shares.  For a lot of young people without many economic (or, for that matter, social) opportunities, military service has long been a way out of otherwise dreary prospects.  Yes, that brings up good questions about race, class, and the composition of the armed forces, but that is the case nonetheless.  Sheer probability dictates that a proportional number of those recruits are queer — I was about to write GLBT, but I suppose the T there is a bit more unlikely in this particular context.  Some kids have more than one really good reason to want to get the hell out of their dead-end town, is it not so? 

I acknowledge that this seems less of a step forward if you are intent on seeing military service as a cannon fodder factory, and a grimly cynical way of disposing of Americans of comparatively low social status.  In the context of the misbegotten current US engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can understand this concern.  But this ignores the fact that the bulk of the US population, to say nothing of the military itself, regards service personnel as intrinsically valuable (or, if you prefer, high-status) people who personify a host of positive qualities, not least of which is a spirit of self-sacrifice in the service of the country's welfare.  Given that a lot of gay and lesbian teens who have been literally and metaphorically kicked around lack a sense that others around them value them, that others around them consider them worth having around, it seems plain to me that those who are equipped to do so might consider joining up, even at the cost of having to talk about pretend SOs or switching the gender pronouns for real SOs.  They probably had to do a lot worse than that just to get through their day in their youth.

The benefits of joining the military are no doubt that much greater if you have the chance to become an officer: more money (not a lot, but still), more status, more opportunity to rise even further.  Don't underestimate the attraction of that possibility to anyone who believes, rightly or not, that other status-advancing career paths are not open to them.  That's why we often associate the armed forces with blue-collar backgrounds: nowadays, there are simply more people from such backgrounds than those from elite military-caste families (like, um, John McCain) who are on hand to staff the military, and have some compelling reason to do so.  The US Army is a lot bigger than its West Point alumni; the Navy bigger than its Annapolis grads, and so on. 

And jeez, it's not as though there aren't queer military personnel training in elite officer colleges, either.  If you want to lecture officer-students about the implications of their career choices in terms of US foreign policy and so on, go ahead.  But don't tell the gay and lesbian ones among them that they should either hide their sexualities, or that they should simply avoid the military.  Such avoidance only reinforces the discrimination and lends weight to bigots' assertions that non-hetero people just shouldn't be around, no matter how they dress up that assertion with claims of military readiness and unit discipline.  That's a much larger claim than just 'in the military' — as has been observed elsewhere, queer youth hear the larger message of "We don't want you around in the first place" within the seemingly milder claim of "We don't want you in this particular position." 

I do not doubt that, at least at first, there will be an upsurge in hazing and gay-bashing in the ranks.  Ending DADT means that queer military personnel need not misrepresent their sexual orientation in social situations.  (Presumably, they need not represent their sexual orientation at all from now on, in official contexts.)  And openness about that will, I fear, lead to some backlash among the more bigoted and hateful in the ranks.  But the same thing happened, I would think – by all means, fact-check me if you have the history at your fingertips – when the military ended racial segregation, and yet the military did not collapse in an orgy of racial violence.  Plus, a big component of gay-bashing and bullying in such institutions relies on the implicit understanding that the object of the bullying cannot lodge a full complaint with superiors, because they are not 'supposed' to be gay in the first place and thus could only indict themselves.  Removing that official stigma won't wipe out prejudice and bullying altogether, but it will, I suspect, sap a lot of what fuels the bullying.

Finally, I want to declare my distaste for the desire to keep the armed forces segregated, whether spoken out of radical leftist politics or right-wing quasi-religious politics.  The United States is going to have a large professional military, whether you like that idea or not.  It has become an unavoidable reality for our country.  Critiquing where the military goes and at whom it shoots is an equally valid and necessary part of our body politic, but expressing the desire that people would simply no longer join up – as if we were discussing a boycott of a brand of shampoo – is a stupid and dangerous fantasy.  It's not stupid or dangerous because the military could be left too short-handed to defend our borders.  (That would be the fantasy part, there.)  It's stupid and dangerous because it leaves the military personnel with the belief that some people either are above military service or beneath it.  That builds both class-based resentment among serving personnel against those who can choose a less physically dangerous career and gender-based hatred of those who are deemed innately incapable of doing a job that has nothing to do with sexual orientation, and thereby creates a bullying atmosphere that feeds on itself and its own obsessions with validating the worth of military personnel at the expense of someone else.  I can tell you with great personal and professional authority that I do not want to live in a country where only 'those people' are in the military, no matter what the term might include or exclude.

I take no joy in seeing my government accepting convicted violent felons into the army for lack of better recruits who meet the stupid 'not openly gay' criterion.  The fact that the US Army thought it made more sense to recruit a man with a history of using firearms in pursuit of criminal activity than a man with sterling credentials, the capability to lead soldiers well and judiciously, and happened to have a boyfriend is head-slappingly frightening to me, and indicates how far down the wrong path the military was already going.  Rest assured that decisions like that would not have made it any easier for critics of US military engagements and foreign policy to persuade the military to exercise restraint or forbearance in its conduct at home or abroad.

RIP DADT.  I'm glad to see it go and I'm not ashamed to say it.

*ETA: I can't find TR's comment on this to save my life: I think it may have been a response comment, rather than a post of its own.  In any case, she has since written her own post on the DADT repeal.


  1. I concur!

    The military is surprisingly good at taking an order and making it work. It did so with Truman's order to integrate. And while it took some time, I've read that it's now the most racially integrated large institution in the US. I'm sure that doesn't mean there's no racism, but academia has a long way to go to catch up.

  2. ps. I always have trouble with this comment system. :(

  3. This is really thoughtful -- and I'm glad to see DADT go, too!

  4. I agree with you 100%. Throughout history, it seems that once the military decides to implement something, it becomes commonplace in the civilian world. One (far more superficial) example is the use of sustainable energy technologies. Some are saying that if the military adopts these innovations (as they are almost certain to do), it will spur the rest of us to follow suit, and it'll be cheaper for us. Racial integration, greater inclusion of women, and now the repeal of DADT...slowly, but surely!

  5. Yes, yes, and yes! I agree with you 100% on all accounts here, but especially when you write, "I do not want to live in a country where only 'those people' are in the military, no matter what the term might include or exclude."

    I spent the first half of my childhood on military bases and come from a family of military professionals. As an adult, there are many aspects of the US military that I don't agree with, but the dismissal I sometimes witness of the men and women who serve drive me crazy. A class issue, indeed.

    Baridac mentions the racial integration of the military. It was a huge shock for me when I went from the bases and military schools to suburbia and public schools. In the military, I had friends from many ethnicities, classes, and backgrounds. After we left the service, it was white and middle class as far as the eye could see.

  6. I'm abysmally late in commenting on this (I plead the holidays), but want to give my "amen!" as well.

    But I also want to make the observation that service academy students (those at West Point, Annapolis, etc.) are not all, or even mostly, from the "elite military caste." Their education is free if they stay for the full four years and commit to five years of service (it's also free if they leave by the end of the second year; after that, they have to pay it back). There are also a number of students at the academies who are "prior enlisteds"--students who joined the military right out of high school, but whose commanding officers were impressed by them (I think they have to enroll by age 21). Those are kids who often had no expectation of ever going to college, and whom the military often pays to bring up to academic snuff.

    My former partner taught at a service academy for five of the six years we were together (and still teaches there, as a civilian), so I got to know lots of his students. They probably skew more affluent and more privileged than the military as a whole, but not necessarily a lot more.

    As you suggest, the military really is, for a lot of people, a vehicle for upward mobility (not to mention exposure to a much wider world, for people who might not otherwise ever leave their home state or meet people outside of it).