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Fighting to Fight: Questioning the Battle of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

by Gabrielle Korn


August 11, 2011

On September 20, 2011, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- the law barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military -- will officially be repealed. Created by President Clinton in 1993 as a compromise between the existing ban on homosexuals in the military and his campaign promises to allow anyone to serve, regardless of sexual identity, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," or simply DADT, had been seen by gay rights activists and allies as forcing gays and lesbians in the military back into the closet. Its repeal has been on the forefront of LGBT activism in the past few years, and DADT made major news headlines, so much so that it became one of the defining issues of the contemporary gay rights struggle to those outside the gay community.

While, of course, the military should never have been an institutionalized closet, as a lesbian activist concerned with society's treatment of members of my community, I have been disturbed by the way this issue has been portrayed as essential to the LGBT movement.

As the U.S. continues to inch towards equality, I feel that it is important to think critically about the political context of the particular rights that lesbian and gay Americans have recently been bequeathed: marriage equality in New York as the economy withers and wavers around us, and permission to serve openly in the military during wars that are increasingly opposed by Americans. By April 2008, 63 percent of Americans thought the U.S. made a mistake sending in troops to Iraq, compared to 32.3 percent in 2003, according to the Gallup poll, and by late June 2011, 72 percent favored troop withdrawal plans in Afghanistan.

The Center for American Progress reported in 2009 that, for the military, the biggest problem presented by DADT was that it sent "the wrong signal to the young people -- straight or gay -- that the military is trying to recruit." It continued, "Military recruiters face generalized hostility and opposition everywhere from high schools to colleges and law schools over the issue of discrimination against gays." Seemingly, a more tolerant-appearing military would make the job of recruiters easier if young people thought that the military had the same interests they described -- "namely, diversity, fairness, and equality," the report said.

In this light, gay rights appear to be granted when they fulfill a larger purpose for the government. It's a special sort of narcissism that weighs individual struggles against the political agenda of the government, granting rights only as they become relevant to those in charge. I believe that empathy should transcend, not rely upon, personal relevancy, but it seems to happen frequently on both micro- and macro-levels. Just as many straight people start supporting gay rights only when they have a gay family member, the government wants gays in the military when it needs more people to support its wars.

And this strategy works. While previous generations have been defined by the way they rallied for peace, the most public voices of my generation of recent college grads and my community are rallying for the right to fight in wars.

Considering how unpopular the current wars are, I question why the right to serve openly in the military is at the forefront of LGBT activism. Why are gays and lesbians eager to join an institution that has traditionally upheld the rigid gender roles against which the LGBT movement has been rebelling? Why seek membership in an institution that takes advantage of the poor to fight battles that serve the goals of the elite? And what of the civilians whose rights are infringed and cast aside by a U.S. invasion? Ė are we trading their civil rights for our own?

I'm attracted to sentiments from queer liberationists, who are against the repeal of DADT because they are anti-military. Queer liberationism teaches that queer issues should be examined not just as they relate to the LGBT population, but to all aspects of social justice. This view is in opposition to gay assimilation, which seeks to normalize queerness and codify LGBT people as the same as their heterosexual friends and family. By striving for blanket acceptance, gay assimillationists fail to analyze the implications of participating in certain institutions -- achieving sameness is the most important goal.

Queer liberationists strive to to keep the LGBT population out of the military. As Cindy Sheehan, peace activist and the mother of a slain soldier, says, there is no celebration in "the capacity for increased carnage." There are other downsides, as well. The military remains unsafe for many women; about one third of homeless people in the U.S. are veterans; and, one in four veterans end up disabled.

This new right to serve openly in the military doesn't feel like a "right" at all. If anything, gay people in America have been distracted from protesting the wars by protesting to join something we've been told by the government is an honorable cause. The mainstream LGBT desire for inclusion has replaced what should be the most important big-picture goal of all activist movements: peace.

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Gabrielle Korn is the Editorial Assistant of On The Issues Magazine. She is an activist, writer and artist.

Also see "Good News for Trans Veterans: New VA Healthcare Guidelines" by Autumn Sandeen in the Cafe of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Paradoxes of Women in Uniform Take Deep Listening" by Chris Lombardi in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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