As Dick Cheney struggles single-handedly to preserve what is left of George W. Bush's legacy, Barack Obama has resurrected a shibboleth from Bill Clinton's term of office. The notorious "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that was finally adopted by the U.S. military was a compromise agreed to by Clinton after his campaign promise of reversing the military's outright ban on homosexuals. Clinton wanted gays to be able to serve in the military without having to keep their sexual preference a secret.
One of the most serious arguments for allowing homosexuals to bring their orientation out into the open derives from the possibility of blackmail. If a gay serviceman holds a security clearance and is trying to keep his sexuality a secret, like any other skeleton in the closet, he can be subject to blackmail, which could potentially compromise whatever classified material he has access to. Clinton's compromise was made only after what I can only guess was heated discussion with his military advisors. The don't ask, don't tell policy was nothing but an official name for the same old practice that had been going on in the military - acceptance through denial. A serviceman could be as queer as a $3 bill as long as he kept it a secret.(1)
I have a pretty good idea why Clinton arrived at his compromise, and what his military advisors told him to help him make up his mind. The argument against allowing gays to serve "openly" (to use the dreaded jargon) in the military has to begin with an understanding of the environment in which military men must live. A microcosm of that environment can be found aboard any U.S. Navy ship. Enlisted personnel on a ship live in what is called open bay berthing - as many as eighty people sleep, shower, and dress in a cramped space where there can be no privacy whatever. The beds, or racks, are often stacked three deep. They are affectionately called coffin racks because of a thin mattress covering the steel lid of a locker about eight inches deep. The racks are separated by standing lockers and a small space about five feet wide in which sailors can get dressed, iron their clothes, etc. This is their whole world while the ship is at sea. The only breaks from this confined space are visits to the weather deck.(2) More than one observer has likened this environment to a prison.
When I was in the Navy, women were just beginning to serve aboard combatant ships. On support ships, like oilers, tenders and supply ships, where women served in greater numbers, the sexes were segregated into male and female berthing. (3) As long as their sexual orientation was never in question - i.e., straight - this segregation was considered acceptable. When and if that sexual orientation became optional, that segregation would become problematic. Where would "openly" gay men and women be berthed aboard a ship? I can tell you from experience that the very last thing that a sailor wants to worry about as he is going to the shower or getting dressed beside his locker is another sailor "checking him out."
In the mid-1990s, the easiest way that any sailor could get himself off a ship would be for him to publicly declare that he was gay. His removal from the ship would be as swift as possible, and it would have been carried out for his own safety. If he were not removed from the ship, such a sailor would almost certainly have been seriously injured or killed by fellow sailors. While not forgiving or excusing such violence, I am perfectly capable, having lived for a time aboard a ship, of understanding it.
Think about this: would gay men be berthed among straight men, as realpolitik suggests? Among one another? Among women? Or should they be given individual staterooms, which are reserved for officers? There are physical as well as moral objections to every one of these solutions. For many reasons, civilians have a tough time understanding men in the military. Questions about their masculinity, their machismo, and their sexuality get responses that are direct and unambiguous. One reason for this is their training, which places great emphasis on values that are rather antiquated for civilians: things like honor, integrity, and discipline. As women have been allowed closer to combat in the army and marines, there has been criticism, some of which is plausible. One such criticism is that men will expose themselves to greater risk under fire to protect a woman, which suggests instinctive forces are at play.
I was serving in the Navy when the Tailhook incident occurred. (4) Shortly thereafter, every serviceman, even those without a single female in his unit, was obliged to attend day-long briefings about sexual harassment. An entry was then made in his service record showing that he had attended the briefs, for liability reasons. This was how the military dealt with the problem. The Navy let every serviceman know that it had "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment, just as it had for drug use or - at the time - open homosexuality.
All this said, the U.S. military is an authoritarian system and sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines will all obey whatever orders they are given, no matter how unpopular they are. I have lately heard some pundits refer to a "generational shift," a new breed of servicemen who have more relaxed sexual mores and are less resistant to serving alongside men who are "openly" gay. Whether or not this shift is genuine, unless it has also affected the men in the middle and senior enlisted ranks, the military careerists for whom junior enlisted men are not much more than transient nonconformists, the new show and tell policy will be just another bitter pill for them to swallow, like the increases in deployments and optempos that destroy their marriages and make them strangers to their own children. The whole point - and the whole problem - of the military is the absorption of the individual into the group. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down," they are told in one form or another. Their only real identity is in relation to the men around them, superior or inferior to them. It is the position that he momentarily fills that matters. He is as replaceable as any other part in a machine. So what does it matter if any part of that functioning machine is gay? It would be like wondering if the fruit in a Cézanne still-life is sweet or sour.
(1) I have spoken to women in the military who told me that homosexual behavior among women was far less likely to be reported. Whether or not this suggests that women are more tolerant of homosexuals is inconclusive.
(2) I do not smoke, but I used to accompany sailors on their smoke breaks on the weather deck, just so I could, ironically, get some fresh air.
(3) The most outspoken opponents of women serving on combatant ships were the wives of the sailors, who knew enough about the long time they spent away from home.
(4) Paula Coughlin, an admiral's aide and one of the 83 victims of the sexual harassment at the 1991 Tailhook convention, resigned her commission in 1992 because she claimed justice had not been done by the U.S. Navy. Because of Ms. Coughlin, hundreds of officers implicated in the Tailhook incident had their careers cut short or side-tracked. Coughlin was awarded $5.2 million by the jury in her court case against the Hilton Hotel Corporation, which hosted the Tailhook Convention, and used it to open a business in Florida.