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Gay barracks? Military faces thorny questions

The possible repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy presents the Pentagon with a new challenge: how to transition to a force where homosexuals serve openly.
/ Source: The New York Times

For opponents of the ban against homosexuals serving openly in the military, the steps by Congress this week to repeal the policy, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” were a major victory.

But now they are girding for what may be an equally difficult task: the transition to a force where straight and openly gay servicemen and women live, work and fight alongside one other.

Some homosexuals in the military say they are worried about how that process will work and whether they will be treated differently if they publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation.

Some raised concerns about being harassed, assigned to separate barracks or shunned by colleagues who had been friendly before.

“In an idyllic world, getting rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and saying ‘Everyone here is welcome’ is great,” said a 29-year-old lesbian in the Army National Guard, who asked that her name be withheld because she could still be discharged under the rule.

“But the policy actually allowed for a lot of protections,” the soldier said. “Getting rid of it completely without modifying it is kind of worrisome. The number of incidents against gays in the military is going to increase.”

Indeed, both opponents and supporters of the ban say a host of thorny practical questions will face the Pentagon if Congress gives final approval to legislation allowing the repeal of the ban, which could happen this summer.

Benefits for gay partners?
Will openly gay service members be placed in separate housing, as the commandant of the Marine Corps has advocated?

What benefits, if any, will partners or spouses of homosexual service members be accorded? Will all military units be required to treat homosexuals the same?

And what training will heterosexual officers and enlisted troops receive to prepare them to serve with openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines?

“The reality is, getting rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ doesn’t ensure that all lesbian and gay service members will be equal on that day,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “There will continue to be challenges to make full equality for gays and lesbians in the armed forces a reality.”

Similar questions were asked when blacks were allowed to integrate previously all-white units. But that transition was not without its difficulties too, including instances of racial violence.

A Pentagon panel has begun studying the issues around gays serving openly as part of a broad review of homosexuality in the military, which will include surveys of thousands of service members and their families.

The panel, led by Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of the United States Army in Europe, and Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon’s top legal counsel, is supposed to deliver its report by Dec. 1.

Under an amendment moving through Congress, once that report is finished, the White House and senior Pentagon leadership must certify that repealing the ban will not be disruptive to the military. Once that certification is made, final repeal will occur within 60 days.

The House approved the amendment on Friday as part of the bill authorizing more than $567 billion in Pentagon programs and spending. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the amendment on Thursday, and the full Senate is expected to take up the authorization bill later this summer.

“It could be late 2011 before this is implemented,” said Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, a nonprofit organization.

Ban supporters fear repeal
Supporters of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” who still hope they can stop it from being repealed, fear the effect on the military if it is.

Elaine Donnelly, a leading supporter of the ban on homosexuals serving openly, said she expected major fights over housing issues, including whether gay couples should be allowed to live together on bases, as married heterosexual couples are.

“Same-sex couples in family housing will become a reason for families to decline re-enlistment or a change in station,” she said.

Ms. Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a nonprofit policy group, also predicted fierce debate over rules governing antidiscrimination policies toward homosexuals.

She said she and other supporters of the ban worried that service members who oppose homosexuality on religious grounds would be denied promotions, a policy she called “zero tolerance” toward anti-gay discrimination.

“Over a period of time, not all at once, people who find themselves out of step with zero tolerance will not re-enlist,” she said.

Mr. Nicholson called such concerns “political posturing,” asserting that tens of thousands of gay people already serve in the military, many open to their closest peers, without problems.

Gay advocates said that federal law would prohibit same-sex spouses from receiving the financial and health care benefits that heterosexual spouses receive from the military. But they said some privileges, like hospital visitation rights, might be given to same-sex partners. That issue, too, is likely to be a subject of much debate, they said.

Many service members interviewed this week said they knew homosexuals in the military and did not mind serving alongside them.

“If you trust a soldier with your life, that’s what is most important, not being gay,” said Specialist Kevin Garcia of the Army, who has done two tours in Iraq and is now stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

But Keith Johnson, a petty officer first class with the Coast Guard and a former Marine, said he opposed homosexuality on religious grounds and thought repealing the ban would hurt morale. “If I don’t know, it’s a whole lot better than someone parading it around in my face and me having to deal with it,” he said.

13,000 discharged for homosexuality
More than 13,000 service members have been discharged for homosexuality since the law was enacted in 1993, though the rate of discharges has declined.

One of those who was discharged, Joseph Rocha, a former petty officer third class, said he planned to join the Navy again if the ban is repealed. “My heart is set on becoming an officer,” said Mr. Rocha, 24. “Before yesterday, that wasn’t an option.”

Amid their celebratory talk, gay rights groups on Friday also warned that the ban remained in effect. Indeed, Lt. Col. Victor J. Fehrenbach, a decorated Air Force fighter pilot of 19 years, could be discharged any day under a ‘don’t ask’ investigation that began two years ago.

After being accused of sexual harassment in 2008, Colonel Fehrenbach, who had flown combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, admitted to being gay, even discussing his sexuality on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC.

Though the allegations were dismissed, a board recommended that he be discharged. His case is now before the secretary of the Air Force.

“It just seems incomprehensible that they could justify final discharge, given that Congress is moving toward ending the policy,” Colonel Fehrenbach said in an interview. “I’m afraid people will see headlines and think ‘don’t ask’ has been repealed. And that isn’t the case.”

Dan Frosch and Rob Davis contributed reporting.

This story, first appeared in The New York Times.