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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.