Am I the only queer person in the country that is sad about the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”? I know the long-delayed bill just signed into law has destroyed my plan to avoid any future military conscription.
Let me explain. Many of my male friends in college photodocumented their participation in pacifist activities. They explained that this was their insurance policy against any eventual military draft: solid proof to support a history of conscientious objection. As a queer person, I had another plan, though: If anyone tried to compel me to serve in the military, before anyone could even “ask,” I planned to “tell” by yelling, “I’m gay, and not in the happy way!” loudly and repeatedly, until no branch of the military would want me. Just for extra measure I would threaten to convert any and all women that I ran across.
Now, in the wake of another victory for queer rights in this country, it seems silly to not have taken pictures of myself at anti-war protests anyway.
But I have mixed feelings about the repeal of DADT for other reasons, too. With queer folks now allowed to serve openly, it seems that yet another oppressed minority group has been pulled into being exploited by the American military-industrial complex.
The American military’s track record of inclusion is poor by even the lowest of standards. Black Americans were first allowed to serve in the military during the Revolutionary War, when Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, promised freedom to any runaway slave that fought for the British army. George Washington, needing more soldiers, followed suit. I’ll let you guess how many of them actually received their promised freedom. Due to fears of giving Black folks weapons and racist doubts that they were mentally capable of being good soldiers, they were not even allowed to officially serve and enlist until 1862 during the Civil War, despite having fought courageously since the revolutionary war. During WWI, US military leaders decided they would rather use black units for suicide missions where they would likely die, instead of sending their white counterparts. For their valiant efforts, no awards or citations would be given to those soldiers of color until 1996, nearly 80 years later.
This philosophy of contempt and “we’ll let you serve, but only on our terms” is not limited to race. Women, even those who meet the physical ability requirements, are officially banned from ground combat. But once again, when bodies are needed, the military conveniently changes its mind. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s been well known that due to manpower shortages, women have been serving in front-line positions identical to those of men, yet there has been no budge in the official policy. And lest you even entertain the notion that the ban represents some sort of arcane but well-intended form of chivalry, consider that a 2003 survey of female veterans found that 30 percent reported being raped while in the military (women serving in Iraq were reportedly being hospitalized for and even dying of dehydration because they would avoid drinking water in order not to have to make runs to the lavatory alone at night). That’s not even counting cases of sexual assault and harassment. In 2007, only 181 out of 2,212 reported sexual assaults were referred to courts martial. The equivalent arrest rate for these charges among civilians is five times that.
These days, military recruitment across the country continues to focus on poor communities of color. Non-citizens are promised fast-tracked citizenship if they serve (promises that are often later broken). The military’s MO is clear: they identify the underprivileged and exploit those inequities for combat. In exchange they don’t even bother to ensure they get basic human rights.
Of course it’s true that queer folks should have the right to serve if they want to. And I’m relieved that those who have dedicated their lives to the military, those who believe the military is where they belong, can now serve without fear. However, as a labor activist and former union member, it occurs to me that the queer community missed a huge opportunity to make more significant gains.
For example, it’s well understood in the labor community that corporations—entities that only care about money and profit—never offer any more than is demanded. Experience and history have shown that incrementalism does not work either. Nor has just sitting tight and waiting for the powerful to have moments of benevolence ever paid off. True rights are won and maintained when workers, united, leverage their power and indispensibility and insist on what they deserve.
Consider now that we queer folks are estimated to comprise at least 10% of the population. Though that’s far from the majority, in a volunteer military mired in multiple conflicts, and facing diminishing enlistments, we comprise a substantial portion of current and future military personnel. In the fight to repeal DADT, we used public outcry and protest, but we never demonstrated our indispensibility. In fact, I’m not even sure what was won represented a difficult victory. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month revealed that 75 percent of Americans say that gays and lesbians who publicly disclose their sexual orientation should be able to serve in the military. Even 67 percent of conservatives felt that way. Repealing DADT was preaching to the choir.
But what would have happened if every queer soldier and ally refused to work, fight? What if queer folk just refused to enlist? From infantry to engineering to culinary services, all fronts of the American military would have been crippled. Would we have been able to demand equality in more controversial areas in addition to the simply right to serve?
We’ve sold ourselves short.
During the Vietnam War, the voting age was lowered to match the age of the draft. Young people were demanding that right. If you were old enough to fight and die for your country, it seemed only fair that you should be able to vote in its elections. It is strange that gays and lesbians should be able to serve without being allowed similar basic rights: equal marriage rights, rights to have a family through adoption, and discrimination protection (the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Law still doesn’t bar firing or harassment over the issue of sexual orientation). Partners of queer military personnel won’t even be eligible for health benefits, because that benefit requires a marriage certificate.
In the end, I can’t help but feel saddened. In the best case scenario, queer folks will honorably fight to protect and demand the rights of Americans and those around the world without ever having won all those rights themselves. However, what I suspect is more likely is that we will have struggled merely for the “right” to fight in unjust wars and to help support US imperialism; all without even being afforded complete civil rights in our home country.
JESS GUH is a third-year medical student at the University of Michigan. A student and labor activist, she also writes about race, privilege class and medical issues on her blog: guhster.weebly.com.