Remove Stigma From Gay Soldiers

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
December 1, 2003

By Jeff Cleghorn

Sunday marked the 10-year anniversary of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits gay soldiers from serving in the armed forces unless they remain closeted and celibate.

Interestingly, despite the U.S. military's long hostility toward gays, fully 1 million of America's veterans are gay and lesbian, according to the Urban Institute's Population Studies Center. This is a striking statistic.

This 10-year milestone provides an opportunity for our society to rethink how our military treats its gay soldiers. A good place to start this re-examination would be to take a look at the million experiences of our gay veterans.

"Don't ask, don't tell" excludes openly gay troops on the belief their presence would somehow disrupt the morale of heterosexual troops, thereby causing problems with "unit cohesion." During the past 10 years, however, a growing body of social science evidence directly contradicts this premise.

According to the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, when no fewer than 24 foreign militaries lifted their gay bans, they experienced no detriment to their ability to accomplish their missions. These militaries include Great Britain (whose troops fought courageously alongside ours in Iraq), Canada (whose troops fought valiantly alongside ours in Afghanistan), and Israel (whose troops have been in a virtual state of war for more than 50 years).

More importantly, the Pentagon's own internal studies show that the rationale for the gay ban has no legitimate basis. For example, a 1988 Defense Department report noted "studies of homosexual veterans make clear that having same-gender or an opposite-gender orientation is unrelated to job performance in the same way as is being left- or right-handed."

The empirical social science data have, thus far, not succeeded in persuading those supporting the ban to change their minds. If supporters of the ban were to look at the experiences of gay American veterans, they would be more willing to reassess their anti-gay assumptions.

As the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the American people are reminded each day of the contributions of our brave soldiers.
The presumption is that all these soldiers are straight, which is simply not true. Gay soldiers are fighting -- and quite possibly dying -- in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet that part of their stories is not heard. Their voices are silent.

"Don't ask, don't tell" censors their reality from our public conscience. The policy's scheme, however, has one substantial flaw: the truth. Gays are serving, and always have. We have 1 million gay vets to prove it. Unlike those on active duty, gay veterans are not muzzled by "don't tell." They are standing up -- and speaking out.

Gay veterans are sharing their stories of military service in the Documenting Courage Project. It includes veterans such as: Frank Kameny, who fought in World War II's Battle of the Bulge and received the prestigious Combat Infantryman's Badge; retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Hank Thomas, a Virginia Military Institute graduate who received the Purple Heart for combat wounds in Vietnam; and retired Air Force Maj. Patricia Baillie, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War who worked on the staff of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon.

I, too, am a gay veteran. Born and raised in Georgia, I served on three continents while in the Army before retiring with the rank of major.

Like my gay comrades, I am proud of my service to America and believe we have earned the honor -- and deserve the recognition -- of the American people.

We are also proud of the many thousands of gay troops serving overseas today, including those fighting on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. In times of war, there is one absolute truth: gay blood bleeds as red as straight blood.

As we mark the 10-year anniversary of "don't ask, don't tell," we should ask why our government continues to deny gay and lesbian veterans, and soldiers, the full dignity of our American lives.

Jeff Cleghorn is an attorney and retired Army officer living in Atlanta.