Sunday, August 20, 2006

Recuriters struggle to meet lowered targets but gays and lesbians are still 'unfit'

On paper, Haven Herrin seems to be an ideal candidate for military recruiters.
She can easily run five miles and was valedictorian of her college class. "Frankly, I'm exactly the kind of person the military says it wants," she said.
But when Herrin tried recently to sign up for the Minnesota National Guard, she was turned down because she told the recruiter she is a lesbian - a revelation that tripped the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning openly gay service members.
Her admission was the opening round of a nationwide campaign against the 13-year-old policy by a group of young activists. In the next few months, gay men and women in their late teens and early 20s will attempt to enlist at recruiting offices in 30 cities. They will also disclose their sexual orientation.

The above is from Patrick Condon's "Gays to focus attention on 'don't ask, don't tell'" (Associated Press via LA Daily) and it comes at a time when military recruiters can't make quotas (so quotas are lowered and then spun as a 'succes'), at a time when troops scheduled to return home from Iraq get their tours extended (and in one instance, approximately 300 make it home only to be told they're going back). Haven Harrin is one story and here's another from last month "Army Dismisses Gay Arabic Linguist" (Truthdig):

A decorated sergeant and Arabic language specialist was discharged after an investigation determined that he was gay. He alleges his commanding officer blatantly violated the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and that investigators asked him if he had close friends who were gay, and if he was involved in community theater.

We're against the war in/on Iraq and aren't weeping tears over the lackluster numbers military recruiters are posting these days (nor are we surprised by the report aired on last Monday's The KPFA Evening News about the actions some recruiters are currently engaged in). We're also opposed to discriminating against someone because of their sexuality. At a time when questions are rightly being raised over some of the admissions to the US military, it's amazing that the ban on openly gay men and women is still in place.

But it is. 726 men and women were discharged in 2005 for being gay under the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. Bill Clinton campaigned on a pledge to end discrimination in the military. [Page 64 of Bill Clinton and Al Gore's Putting People First: How We Can All Change America, Times Books, 1992: "Prohibit discrimination in federal employment, federal contracts, and government services; issue executive orders to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians from military or foreign service."] That pledge ran smack into the Joints of Chiefs of Staff who, in the face of an end to discrimination, pushed for a policy similar to the eventual Don't Ask Don't Tell which bars questions of same-sex experiences from being asked and bars the disclosure of same-sex experiences. The policy is hideous and the sort of "compromise" that demonstrates, yet again, of how much is lost when we grab what we think we can "live with."

The message the policy sent from the beginning was that gays and lesbians were worthy of service provided they remained closeted, provided they played the 'pronoun game' when ever discussing their own personal lives ("the person," etc.) or just didn't offer up any details of their own lives while heterosexuals freely offered and freely displayed details and photos of their own personal lives. As early as 1996, the reality of the policy was noted: "Despite its 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, the military still probes troops' sexual orientation, sometimes launching an all-out questioning of relatives, friends and therapists, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
Pentagon documents even suggest that the Clinton administration policy, adopted two years ago, has led to wide-ranging and formal investigations in cases that might otherwise have been handled quietly and without punishment, the Times said."

[When discussing the policy with Jann Wenner for a Rolling Stone Interview in 2000, Bill Clinton noted Congressional opposition. While Bob Dole and others did use the issue to deny the newly sworn in president a 'honeymoon,' the discussion didn't really address the pledge made. As we've seen under the Bully Boy, Congress was doesn't have a damn thing to do with executive orders -- and executive orders was the promise so all the talk of how people don't understand how opposed Congress is an easy way out on the part of Clinton and not an attempt at seriously addressing the pledge broken.]

What's lost when we don't know history (besides allowing for revisions that excuse broken pledges)? Quite a lot.

Would the military fall apart if openly gay men and women served? There's nothing to back up that belief. There is a history of service that's largely unknown including those who served with no complaints of the performance until it was learned that they were gay.

History includes Perry Watkins -- a name not widely known considering all the time spent debating the merits of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military for over twenty years now. (Sam Nonsense Nunn started attacking the rights of gays and lesbians to serve in the 1980s.)

So who was Perry Watkins (Watkins died in 1996)? There's a 1994 documentary of his life that none of us have seen but, if the IMDB plot summary is correct, the documentary gets a point wrong. (The film is entitled Sis: The Perry Watkins Story):

Perry J. Watkins was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 and served 15 years reaching the rank of sergeant. He was also openly gay, even to the point of doing drag shows on base. He was discharged in 1982 but fought for reinstatement and the United States Supreme Court ruled in his favor. This is his story.

The Supreme Court didn't technically rule. They denied cert to Kenneth Starr (don't the ugly always pop up in tales of bigotry?) 1990 appeal to Ninth Circuit ruling. By denying cert (November 5, 1990 -- refusing to hear the case), the Court allowed the (10-1) decision of the lower court to stand.

So what were the issues in Watkin's case? He was gay. He would become a drag queen (under the name of Simone, even receiving a write up in Stars & Stripes). This was while serving. This wasn't unknown. The fact that his sexuality was known was why the Ninth Circuit sided with Watkins when the military attempted to get rid of him four years before he'd reach retirement (1984).

During Vietnam, Watkins was drafted in the military and noted in his paperwork that he was gay which led to an evaluation with an Army psychiatrist in which Watkins discussed engaging in anal and oral sex. Watkins was inducted despite the paperwork and the admission.

Later, Watkins would ask to be discharged because he'd learned a White man had been kicked out for being gay. (Watkins was African-American.) The request would be refused.
After two years in the Army, Watkins completed his service and left only to sign back up. The Army took him. His sexuality was known. After that, at the end of each enlistment, the Army let him sign another contract. During his service, the issue of security clearances repeatedly made his sexuality an issue as superiors would have to testify to his competance and abilities. 1972, 1974, 1977, the military openly discussed Watkins sexuality. In 1980, he would be stripped of his clearance and the Army would work to get him out of the service finally succeeding (they thought) in May of 1984 by dishonorably discharging him. The courts thought otherwise.

Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled that a person couldn't be tried twice for the same 'crime' and yet the military had repeatedly tried Watkins and found him fit to serve. After Kenneth Starr's 1990 appeal was denied by the Supreme Court, "Watkins was reinstated, and then retired from the Army with the rank of sergeant first class, and received retroactive pay and full retirement benefits, and an honorable discharge."

"It's blantant racism" was how Watkins characterized the refusal to allow him to testify to Congress during the Don't Ask Don't Tell debates of 1993. And the story of Perry Watkins is a part of history many people are unaware of.

Considering the report on gays fleeing Iraq due to persecution, Iraq's not a land of tolerance. Neither was the military (in 1968, five soldiers attempted to rape Watkins). Perry Watkins served, served while being openly gay. The military didn't fall apart. No known benefits have been paid out due to supposed trauma from sharing a barricks shower with an openly gay man.

At a time when gays and lesbians are still victims of a homophobic policy pushed as an 'advancement,' the reality of Perry Watkins stands as a testament to the cowardice of many. Think about Watkins as the military is resorting to recalling troops who left the service but still have months left on their service contracts. Read Rebeccca Santana's "Troops long out-of-uniform sent to Iraq" (Associated Press) and think about that:

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, said part of the reason that the military has called up so many people who were on reserve status is that certain skill sets such as military police or civil affairs were concentrated in the reserves after the Cold War ended.
But he said the sheer numbers of IRR soldiers being mobilized also are a sign that the military doesn't have enough people to fight this war, now in its fourth year.
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