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"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Doesn't Work

By Lorrayne S. Ward

Private First Class Calvin Glover snuck into Private First Class Barry Winchell's room with a baseball bat during the pre-dawn hours of July 5. Just a few hours after drunkenly celebrating the anniversary of our nation's independence, Glover bludgeoned Winchell to death solely on the basis of Winchell's suspected homosexuality. Although a jury found Glover guilty of premeditated murder, the greater implications of this case reflect the failure of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy towards homosexual service members.

President Clinton recently stated that the policy has not fulfilled its original intention to allow homosexuals to serve in the military without being harassed for their homosexuality. Although he blames the problem on implementation, its fundamental flaws caused the policy's failure.

The Army refuses to comment on how its own "don't ask, don't tell" policy could have led to this heinous crime. Witnesses at Glover's trial testified to the harassment Winchell encountered on a daily basis because of his suspected homosexuality. His platoon sergeant described him as "walking around down in the dumps." Perhaps Winchell would be alive and well today if the armed forces were not so vaguely opposed to openly homosexual servicepeople.

In response to Winchell's murder, the Department of Defense has announced stricter enforcement of the anti-harassment policy towards suspected gay service members as well as spot checks at major military bases to ensure that the policy is being implemented fairly. It also plans to phase in more tolerance and sensitivity training in boot camp. But this is too little, too late. The policy has already done a great deal of harm by driving out qualified servicepeople and discouraging other potential soldiers from enlisting.

When this policy was first formulated in 1993, the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff justified it by saying the combat readiness of heterosexuals would be undermined by the presence of homosexual servicepeople. However, this implies some fundamental difference in ability between soldiers of different sexual orientations. Numerous gay soldiers have served with distinction in the armed forces, even while saddled with the added burden of keeping their sexual orientation secret. But as soon as the soldiers' homosexuality was revealed they were quickly discarged and their medals and honors were trampled over.

The government's reasoning affirms the legitimacy of discrimination and hatred towards gay individuals. While it is understandable that some heterosexual servicepeople may feel uncomfortable serving with homosexuals, discomfort cannot be a basis for discrimination. Other servicepeople may feel uneasy about working with soldiers of a different race or religion, which could impact their ability to fight. Yet servicepeople are protected by both federal law and military regulations from discrimination based upon these differences. This confusing double standard about characteristics that do not impact an individual's ability to serve is one of the most obvious defects in the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The policy's ambiguity opens the door to misunderstanding and misinterpretation as well. It offers no way of dealing with the issue of an individual's sexual orientation once it surfaces. As in the Winchell case, the rumors about his sexual orientation started when he went to a gay club in Nashville with another member of his platoon. While later testimony confirmed Winchell's homosexuality, heterosexuals can, and have, attended gay clubs. His sergeant informally investigated the matter of Winchell's sexual orientation but only came up with suspicions and no concrete evidence. Yet he did nothing to protect Winchell from harassment by his peers. Such harassment is against Army regulations. The sergeant's confusion and cowardice is somewhat understandable in light of the vagueness of the Army's policy.

Although the "don't ask, don't tell" policy allows homosexuals to enter into the armed forces, their service is contingent on their ability to keep their sexual orientation under wraps. Their military success is directly dependent on their ability to be dishonest.

The armed forces supposedly prides itself on its honesty and integrity, but this policy promotes lying. Dishonesty in any other facet of military life, such as cheating on an exam, would result in an immediate dishonorable discharge. Underhandedness in this regard, however, is encouraged and is in fact necessary for a homosexual individual to retain his or her position.

Further underscoring the policy's failure is its lack of rational basis. Other limiting military regulations, such as the one preventing women from serving in combat--while still suspect--can be somewhat reasonably justified on the basis of physiological differences in ability between men and women that may become important on the battlefield. But homosexual soldiers come in all shapes and sizes, just like heterosexual soldiers. There is no external difference between the ability of gay and straight soldiers to serve well, as many homosexual soldiers have proven.

The only solution is allowing complete openness in sexual orientation. No longer would there be whispered rumors and unfounded suspicions that escalate into finger-pointing and abuse. With the issue out in the open, soldiers would be forced to accept their gay peers as individuals unique in their own right, not as strange marginalized beings.

Eliminating this discriminatory policy does seem possible in the near future. Both Al Gore '69 and Bill Bradley have called the "don't ask, don't tell" policy a failure and promise to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military if they are elected. While some discomfort among close-minded people may initially arise, the overall effect will promote dialogue and understanding. Discomfort is not a valid justification for discrimination and prejudice. The current policy only causes witch-hunts and limits individuals' free expression. Although Private Winchell can never return, this much-needed, long-awaited change in military policy can prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future.

Lorrayne S. Ward is a first-year living in Canaday Hall.

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