This past Tuesday, David B. Mixner, advertised as "the most powerful gay man in America," came to Harvard to eat pizza and talk with interested students while promoting increased awareness of and activism for issues surrounding gays and lesbians. In the course of his discussion, Mixner argued that recent judicial decisions and other government legislation has made it imperative that he and others speak out in favor of civil liberties for the homosexual community. In his words, "There's no way that any of us can accept this as a way of life."
Spurring this statement is the recent Supreme Court rejection of a challenge brought by former Navy pilot Lt. Paul G. Thomasson against the military's policy vis-a-vis gays, commonly dubbed "don't ask, don't tell." True to its name, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy takes a relatively laissez-faire attitude towards homosexuals in the American military: Those in power won't ask as long as you don't tell, so stay quiet about your sexual orientation, and everything will be all right; however, should you choose to be public about your sexual preferences and declare your identification as a homo-sexual, you are automatically subject to discharge.
Underlying this policy are a number of very powerful, if subtle, suppositions about homosexuality and, more significantly, about homosexuals themselves. As an *October 22 New York Times article articulated, "Since those who remain silent or are not named by others may remain in the military," the government policy clearly has nothing to do with the inherent ability of a homosexual person to serve in the military successfully. This is an indirect rejection of the prior policy, which stated that all homosexuals could not serve in the military because of the innate liabilities of their sexual choices. The "don't ask, don'tell" policy acknowledges that homosexuality itself is not detrimental to the individual requirements of services.
What is explicit in "don't ask, don't tell" is that the danger of homosexuality lies, somehow, in the aspect of public acknowledgment. The concern seems to be that fellow soldiers will respond negatively to knowing that they are training and living in intimate environments with gay men. As Thomasson expressed in his appeal, the foundation of the policy is "the expected adverse reaction that some heterosexual listeners may have" to discovering the homosexuality of members of the armed services. In its brief encouraging the Supreme Court not to hear the Thomasson appeal, Clinton administration justified the policy in the name of military effectiveness. Included was a statement by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell to the effect that "the cohesion and well-being of the force" would be jeopardized should the ban be lifted.
However, this answer smacks of justifications for segregating the military along racial lines. It is ironic to the point of social satire (or some sick, dark comedy) that Colin Powell, the first African-American to hold the position of chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in our country's history, would speak a language that so obviously resounds with the echoes of racist claims of the past. The significance of this comparison centers on the understanding of the emptiness of the racist arguments in favor of excluding blacks from the military.
For all of their claims to social cohesion and military effectiveness, arguments, for the summary dismissal of publicly homosexual members of the armed services are merely thinly veiled policies of discrimination. The military's uneasiness with homosexuals is reflective of a profound failing in our society. There is no substantive reason to exclude homosexuals from the military outside of the theoretical possibility that some homophobic people may be uncomfortable. It embarrasses me that government policy could be predicated on shallow and empty prejudices. We have worked far too hard to eradicate intolerance to allow such an insidious form of discrimination to fester within our country.
Talia Milgrom-Elcott's column appears on alternate Saturdays.