and ain't i a woman: US army harasses lesbians


and ain't I a woman?

and ain't i a woman: US army harasses lesbians

Last year, women were twice as likely to be dismissed from the US army for being lesbians than men were for being gay, according to a report released on March 15 by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).

The report reveals that the US Department of Defense (DoD) fired 1250 people — the highest number since 1987 — for being gay, lesbian or bisexual. While women make up around 14% of the total force, 30% of the discharges based on sexual orientation were women. In the air force, women were sacked for their sexual orientation at three times the rate that men were.

Homosexuality has long been banned in the US military. In 1981 the DoD declared homosexuality "incompatible with military service" due to the effects of openly gay members on" mutual trust, privacy, recruitment and public acceptance of military policy". In 1994, President Bill Clinton introduced a policy, codified in Congress, known as "Don't ask, Don't tell, Don't pursue". It means that if you're gay, lesbian or bisexual, it's okay as long as no-one knows; but if you make it public, you'll be thrown out.

In 1999, a soldier was beaten to death in his barracks by fellow soldiers who perceived him to be gay. In the wake of this murder, Pentagon officials added "Don't harass" to the title of the policy. Yet verbal and physical harassment has continued to escalate. According to the DoD statistics, 1075 incidents of anti-gay harassment were reported in 2001, up from 871 in 2000. No doubt many more incidents go unreported as service members try to avoid raising suspicion that they may be gay or lesbian.

The 1994 policy and its 1999 anti-harassment amendments were supposed to put an end to witch-hunts, but they still occur. In mass investigations service members have been pressured to name others who might be gay, and fishing expeditions have probed every aspect of service members' private lives.

The grounds for discharge under the "Don't ask" policy are engaging in homosexual sex; marrying or attempting to marry someone of the same sex; or verbally admitting that you are homosexual or bisexual. The SLDN's on-line survival guide explains: "A homosexual act is defined [by the military] as 'any bodily contact, actively undertaken or passively permitted, between members of the same sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desires...'.

"This broad definition of homosexual acts poses a real problem, particularly for people who are used to expressing non-sexual affection in a physical manner. Inquiries could potentially be initiated against service members, regardless of their actual sexual orientation, on the basis of a photograph in which two men simply have their arms around each other, or on the statement of a witness that she observed two women consoling each other."

It is not surprising that lesbians suffer more under this policy than gay men. Even as more women have entered the military's ranks, they continue to suffer disproportionate discrimination.

According to a 1995 DoD survey, 55% of women serving in the military reported that they had received uninvited and unwanted sexual attention from someone at work during the last 12 months. In a 1996 Pentagon survey, nearly one in 10 women in the army reported being sexually assaulted. In the same year, under public pressure, the army established a sexual harassment hotline which received nearly 6600 complaints in its first two months. In another survey conducted in 2000, 71% of active-duty women reported experiencing some type of sexually harassing behaviour in the preceding 12 months.

What the defence force defends, violently, is a social system which oppresses women, and discriminates against gays and lesbians. This is why it is riddled with homophobic and anti-woman harassment. Rank-and-file military personnel are systematically brutalised so that they will kill, against their moral judgement and without question.

Less than 10 years ago, Marine corps drill instructors led training runs with chants like: "One, two, three, four. Every night we pray for war. Five, six, seven, eight. Rape. Kill. Mutilate." Today, the old chants are banned, but instructors still convey a kill-or-be-killed message through intimidation and the threat of violence.

Women and gay men in military deserve basic human rights, and we should support their demand to "serve" free of harassment and violence, while the institution exists. But that doesn't mean encouraging more women, or gay men, or anyone, to join the defence force and help to defend a sexist and homophobic society.


[The author is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party.]

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From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
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