OPINION: Our Untold Patriotism

Washington Blade
April 02, 2004

By Jeff Cleghorn, Columnist

Some attribute the drop in gay discharges from the military to the need for troops at a time of war, but there’s a better explanation.

A REPORT RELEASED last week by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network points out that for the second year in a row, gay discharges are down.

SLDN argues in the report that “gay discharges have dropped every time America has entered a war.” And indeed, discharges went from 1,273 in 2001, to 906 in 2002, to 787 in 2003, a 39-percent decrease since Sept. 11.

There is, however, at least one other possible explanation; one that focuses on the bravery and loyalty of gay troops rather than Pentagon hypocrisy.

Back in the days before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military routinely conducted witch-hunts to identify gay and lesbian soldiers, and summarily kick them out. Today, 10 years into the notorious “Don’t Tell” law, gay troops continue to be discharged. There is, however, a very big difference between now and then.

Today the military no longer seeks to systemically purge gays from its ranks. According SLDN’s report, gay and lesbian troops are not targeted for criminal investigation, witch-hunts or “inappropriate command-directed asking and pursuits” to the extent that they were before the advent of the “Don’t Tell” law.

In fact, by a wide margin according to the gay discharge statistics, most gay discharges over the past several years have been triggered by soldiers and sailors making “coming out statements” to their superiors. In other words, unlike those kicked out 10 or 20 years ago, most of the recent gay discharges result from troops raising their hands and saying, in essence, “I’ve had enough, get me out of here.”

THE MEDIA, INCLUDING the gay press, has picked up on the SLDN theory that the Pentagon has slowed gay discharges because of the war on terror and in Iraq and has reported that some gay troops’ sexual orientations are being ignored or overlooked by the military.

SLDN cites as an example the story of Army Capt. Austin Rooke, who works for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. Even though the Army knew Captain Rooke worked for the Task Force, it nonetheless called him back to active duty and shipped him overseas to fight.

Maybe the Army was enlisting the service of a perceived gay man because in times of national emergency it does not care so much about sexual orientation. After all, look at the lower gay discharge numbers during past wars.

On the other hand, we are also being told that the military has recently fired more than 30 gay linguists, including several studying to become fluent in Arabic. The widely publicized dismissal of the linguists creates a tension with the argument that the Defense Department is allowing gay troops to serve during this time of war.

AT LEAST ONE other reasonable theory could explain why the gay discharge rate is falling. Since most modern-day gay discharges result from coming-out statements, maybe — during this time of war — gay soldiers are not coming out as often.

In past armed conflicts, it may well have been the case that witch-hunts were suspended so as to keep able-bodied soldiers in uniform. But by SLDN’s own admission and due primarily to that organization’s dogged efforts, those days of fishing expeditions to purge gays from the ranks are largely behind us.

Indeed, the experience of Captain Rooke stands for this very proposition. He could have easily avoided further military service by simply coming out to the Army. They likely suspected he was gay by virtue of his employment for the Task Force, but the apparent choice not to investigate him speaks well of the Army’s adherence to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Captain Rooke chose instead to answer the call to duty rather than come out.

As the mounting body count in Iraq shows, military service is a deadly serious business. But the true untold story regarding the recent decrease in gay discharges is that, like Captain Rooke, gay and lesbian Americans are answering the call to service during this time of national crisis.

Our domestic enemies claim that the presence of gays in the ranks undermines military effectiveness. Captain Rooke, and thousands like him, are bravely proving the lie that we know “Don’t Tell” to be.