Thoughts on the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

by Susan

September 30, 2011

The other day I watched the YouTube video of a 21 year old U.S. airman stationed in Germany come out to his dad on the phone, soon after the repeal of DADT was official. As someone who has also said the words “Dad, I’m gay” with trepidation, I couldn’t help but feel for the young man. At the same time, as a socialist and antiwar activist, I am unwilling to take on the celebratory mood embraced by much of the LGBTQ community these past few weeks.

The campaign for the repeal of DADT has effectively debunked the argument that gays in the military will diminish “unit cohesion,” thereby laying bare the homophobic myths and prejudice behind the policy. Through hundreds of news articles and debates, repeal advocates out-maneuvered military commanders, Pentagon officials, and conservative politicians, leaving the latter looking hypocritical, unreliable, and out of touch with reality. The homophobic argument was turned on its head; rather than protecting “unit cohesion,” DADT impedes military readiness by forcing gay and lesbian service members to be dishonest and by needlessly discharging members during a time of low recruitment.

In crafting this argument, repeal advocates chose to accept that military readiness and recruitment are issues of importance to the public and to the LGBTQ community. They framed (gay) military voices as “voices of honor” and spread the myth of the military as an institution that upholds honesty and integrity (or would with the repeal of DADT). While LGBTQ groups spent millions of dollars on the repeal, the real cost of this campaign was the positioning of the LGBTQ community in support of militarism, distancing us from our anti-war roots and redefining the goals of the movement as legal equality empty of social justice. It is a continuation of a disheartening trajectory of assimilation.

Some queers on the left have stated that they support DADT (or opposed the repeal) because they oppose anyone joining the military, gay or otherwise. I’m not sure I buy that argument. In the big picture, the open inclusion of gays in the military is not going to strengthen US imperialism and the decision to go to war is not likely to depend on the enlistment of gay youth. Furthermore, I don’t wish upon anyone the fear and pain of forced closeting.

With that said, I believe that antiwar LGBTQ activists need to project an alternative analysis of the LGBTQ community’s relationship to militarism that counters the underlying assumptions of the repeal DADT campaign. As previously stated by Against Equality, Queers for Economic Justice, and the authors of Queer (In)Justice, militarism does not serve queer interests.

The United States uses military and police power to maintain social control and dominance in an environment of extreme inequality, both locally and internationally. In this power struggle, the criminalization and policing of sexuality and gender expression are some of the tools at their disposal. These tools are employed disproportionately along lines of race and class, so that the immigrants, poor people, and racial minorities frequently find themselves criminalized and “othered” based on their (perceived) sexualities and/or gender expressions. Furthermore, “perverted” sexualities are projected wholesale onto the enemies of US military and economic interests, rendering entire populations less than human and therefore fair game for preemptive violence and torture. For example, in preparation for the Invasion of Iraq, some US soldiers scrawled “die Iraqi faggots” on a bomb. In addition, as explained by Irene Monroe, “the photos taken in those moments at Abu Ghraib also show the U.S.’s continued employment of sexual violence — both intentionally misogynistic and homophobic — to defile, humiliate, or, in military terms, “break the will” of its enemies.” This recent sexualized violence and torture in the military is reflected at home in the continued police brutality in LGBTQ communities, physical and sexual violence in US prisons, and rise in hate crimes since the glorification of military power following 9/11.

Unfortunately, this analysis didn’t make it into the discussion around homophobia and discrimination in the military. The campaign to repeal DADT embraced militarism so uncritically, with such fervor, because the LGBTQ movement is not concerned with sexual liberation or even with the overall quality of life of most LGBTQ people. Rather, their goal is eliminating legal discrimination against people based on “who they love,” which, at the end of the day, requires only some minor adjustments in heteronormativity. Discrimination and criminalization based on sexuality and gender expression can continue alive and well alongside “the freedom to serve.”