Why Ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Is Important, And What Remains To Be Done

December 19, 2010, 3:22 pm

Make love, not war?  Photo credit.

I am one of those lefty queers who is both anti-war and desired the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Noxious as war is, it is also my view that allowing forms of discrimination to be written into the law is neither a gift (“Yay, I am radically free from compulsory marriage!”) or a way to distance from the American war machine (“Yay! I’m not implicated in the American war machine, even though my consumer habits, my pension and the university that employs me depends on it!”)

In regard to this latter point:  think Bayard Rustin.  True, Bayard was not out as a gay man until very late in life, but he was very black, and he went to jail during World War II as a conscientious objector as a member of both the civil rights and anti-war movements.  I mention this both because he might have evaded service by announcing his homosexuality (although this would have complicated his life on the homophobic left earlier than it eventually did) and because going to jail was not a move that a black man made lightly in the 1940s, as he was more than likely to come out in a box.*

While watching the signing ceremony is not going to make me teary (as I was, for example, back in 1987, when Barney Frank came out; and again in 1990, when the first openly gay person was permitted to address the Democratic convention) I consider this to be an important step — not necessarily towards equality, but towards a basis by which we might imagine an inclusive human rights agenda in the United States and a recognition of the ways in which certain groups are confined by the law and other groups are freed by it.  Repealing DADT is an imperfect way of getting there, as is marriage equality, but they are both necessary moves even if you, personally, find marriage and the military noxious and retrograde.

Myself, I find hypocrisy to be the source of most social and political toxicity.  From that perspective,  these institutions are merely the effect of a broader American commitment to hypocrisy and a reproductive mechanism for it, not the actual problems.

I say this because a great many queer intellectuals and activists will not be popping the cork on this one.  In “Don’t Enlist, Don’t Serve”, Troy Williams writes:  “There are many things worse than discrimination. Being hit by a mortar blast, losing a limb, living with post-traumatic stress disorder or killing another human all come to mind.”  Arguing that DADT has “saved an uncounted number of queer lives,” he also points to the high levels of violence perpetrated by soldiers against each other.  “The culture of the military encourages hazing, misogyny and homophobia;” that “war fucks people up;” and that veterans are often neglected and abused following their service by a political machine and a society that refuses to commit to sane social welfare policies.

Kathryn Franke notes the ways in which increased visibility of lesbians has the potential to enhance institutionalized brutality towards women in the military.  In “It Gets Worse:  What Repeal of DADT May Mean For Sexual Violence In The Military,” she argues that like the marriage equality movement, military service is a “curious” location “for the elaboration of a free-self.”  By this she means, in fact, wrong-headed, since both institutions are forms of state regulation that emphasize disciplining the self to a set of rules that are intended to control and confine us.

Franke goes on to remind us that, within this highly disciplined institution, there are already appalling rates of sexual violence against women in the military, and that “open military service for lesbians may hold greater, or at least different, peril for lesbians than it does for gay men.”  She continues:

Surely gay men who will serve openly will be vulnerable to hazing, harassment and even violence from other service members who do not welcome their presence in the U.S. military. Even in countries that have allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly for some time find their gay soldiers brutally harassed from time to time. (See e.g. here)

But lesbians will face harassment on account of their sexual orientation in a way that compounds the kind of harassment and violence all women in the military suffer as a routine matter. A routine matter about which the military already knows and does very little to combat.

Interestingly, at one point in his testimony last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates linked the issue of violence against women in the military to the potential for violence against out queer soldiers, the only time I have ever heard a military official bring this subject up voluntarily.  So another possibility here (sigh) is that DADT has caused new scrutiny of systemic sexual violence in the military because we can now acknowledge that men are candidates for rape.
Together, the posts by Williams and Franke point to a yawning absence on the queer, policy-oriented left that the vital new directions in queer scholarship have yet to make a serious dent in:  what a queer anti-violence politics that was not entirely situational would look like.  This, in turn, would require a new interrogation of cultures of male violence that were the object of violent disagreement on the feminist left in the 1980s; that were never fully resolved; and that are imbricated in the queer intellectual perspectives articulated above.  We need a better theory of the institutional conditions that produce homophobic and sexist violence, as well as high levels of compliance by those who do not perpetrate violence with those who do, and a theory that does not entirely rely on disappearing the institution itself.

DADT has moved to yesterday’s Senate vote, for example, I have thought constantly about a straight male acquaintance who joined an elite branch of the armed forces, and was, at every stage of his training and deployment, forced to endure rituals of violence and humiliation that were not specifically homophobic.  They included such useful military skills as spending a day doing his work with a filthy toilet seat around his neck, standing in formation in the middle of the night nude except for the women’s underpants on his head (yes, what happened at Abu Ghraib happens all the time in the U.S. military), staying up all night cleaning a latrine with his toothbrush and then being ordered to use it in his mouth, and being repeatedly beaten up by other soldiers for imagined failures of deference.

What strikes me as a particularly graphic exam
ple for the need of a more embracing theoretical perspective is the failure to make a practical connection between what currently counts for an anti-violence politics on the queer left — homophobic and sexist bullying among high school students — to a realistic sense of the ways the military (but also marriage and the family) perpetuate and institutionalize violence.  These issues are, in fact, inseparable, as a political history of school and of the the military are also inseparable.  Each institution relies heavily on invisible systems of self-rule to maintain governance and subservience.  In each case, self-rule is based on forms of brutality that could not possibly be legitimated by the state, but which serve as discipline by proxy.

So yes, sign that bill President Obama, so we can get started on the real work of ending violence.

*You can read about it Rustin’s heroism in John D’Emilio’s excellent biography, Lost Prophet:  The Life And Times Of Bayard Rustin.

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