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Gays in the Showers!  Oh My!

by RADM Al Steinman, USCG/USPHS (Ret)

The basic underlying assumption supporting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) is that there is sufficient discomfort, antipathy or outright hatred  of homosexuals by some heterosexual service members that unit morale, cohesion and combat readiness would be undermined by gays serving openly.  When one looks beneath the lofty philosophical discussions about the necessity of group bonding among members of the military to create an effective fighting force (a reality to which I and most others who have served in the military readily agree), one finds that maintaining one's privacy is the single-most important element for heterosexuals when they think about homosexuals serving alongside them.  Indeed, the privacy argument is now championed almost exclusively by the inventor of DADT, Professor Charles Moskos.  Here's what he said in a 2003 interview at Northwestern University: "To me, the issue comes down to privacy. Prudes have rights, too."  Even more frankly, Prof. Moskos declared in a 2000 interview with a journalist from Lingua Franca magazine, "Fuck unit cohesion. I don't care about that ... I should not be forced to shower with a woman. I should not be forced to shower with a gay [man]."

Which brings us directly to the shower argument.  To gay men and women who serve their country in the military, the idea that they will misbehave, ogle or harass their peers in a shower might seem far-fetched, strange and completely at odds with reality.  But to heterosexual servicemen (and it seems mainly a problem for males; straight women seem far less bothered by the concept of possibly showering with a lesbian), the shower issue is a powerful, gut level and very real concern.  This concern is expressed in various ways, from the polite ("I would be uncomfortable thinking there's a gay guy in the shower with me") to the overtly hostile ("I don't want some fag looking at me or thinking about touching me when I'm in the shower").  The concern is also expressed more intellectually ("our society separates men and women in situations where privacy is a concern, as in bathrooms, locker rooms, showers and sleeping quarters").  But it is also sometimes expressed in a more sexual way ("I'd love to be able to shower with women, but I can't; so why should a gay guy get to shower with the object of his desire?").   Thus, any discussion of repealing DADT must, of necessity, deal with this very visceral concern of some heterosexual servicemembers. That concern continues to be readily accepted by many in Congress and certainly by many in positions of leadership in the military.  The "shower issue" is both real and important. 

So let's examine the issue in a rational way.  The cultural norm in this country has always been: men shower with men, and women shower with women.  It is unusual, even for opposite sex couples, married or otherwise, to shower together as a part of normal, daily life (excepting when it's part of sexual play).  This means that it's quite rare for men to shower with women, but extremely common for men to shower with other men, and women to shower with other women.  Thus gay men have been showering with straight men all along; and lesbians have been showering with straight women.  To a gay man or woman, it's not a unique situation to shower with someone of the same gender.  Consequently, instances of ogling, misbehavior and harassment are relatively rare.  Reducing this fact to a sound bite, the gay servicemember would say, "Been there, done that, no big deal."

For a heterosexual man, however, showering with a woman would be considered a rare treat, indeed.  Straight men can readily identify their own sexual interest in that situation and thus project that interest onto gay guys.  After all, the thinking goes, men are men.  Thus the heterosexual serviceman assumes that the gay serviceman will have the same interest in him as he would in a woman in the shower.  He doesn't consider the reality of the situation that gay men have been in showers with other men their whole lives and don't necessarily find it titillating.  Even more to the point, the heterosexual serviceman has likely been in the shower with gay guys, too, both in the military and before he joined the military.  If he understands DADT (which few do), he would know both the law and DoD regulations say the gay guy can be in the shower with him. They not only have been in the shower with him, but there hasn't been a problem.

In fact, under DADT, gays have not only been in the showers with their heterosexual counterparts, they've shared the same barracks, berthing spaces, workspaces, foxholes, humvees, tanks, tents, and every other situation where privacy is compromised and the enforced togetherness of the military prevails.  Has there been a problem?  Not likely.  Instances of same-sex harassment are extremely rare.

Some might argue that the "don't tell" part of DADT prevents any such problems.  They would argue that although there is general knowledge that there might be gay guys in the shower with you, you don't know exactly who that it is, so it's okay.  If one accepts that argument, however, it would seem necessary to reject the previous arguments that "discomfort" in the presence of gays justifies DADT.  After all, if you know or suspect that there's a gay guy in the shower with you, you would likely be uncomfortable, even if you didn't know precisely who it is. 

On a more practical level, open showers in the military are fairly uncommon these days.  A recent Palm Center/University of California poll (conducted by Zogby International) of combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan found that 71% of the troops always or usually showered privately, whereas only 8% always or usually showered in groups.  Additionally, The timing of a shower is often discretionary.  So if a heterosexual service member is concerned about taking a shower with a gay guy, he/she can take the shower when the known or suspected gay member is not there.  Taking this latter tact even further, one might facetiously argue that someone who is "uncomfortable" in the presence of gays would want gays to be able to serve openly so that they'd know exactly whom to avoid in the shower. 

Reducing the issue of whether gays should be allowed to serve openly to a question of sharing shower spaces seems, to me anyway, most unprofessional.  It basically implies that because some straight guys are uncomfortable with the potential for having to share a shower with a gay guy, that tens of thousands of capable, qualified, patriotic Americans cannot serve their country openly and honestly.  It assumes that all gay guys want to ogle, touch, fondle or whatever their peers.  And it assumes all straight guys think of gay guys in that way.  In the words of former Army Ranger Brian Hughes, this insults the professionalism of both the gay soldier and the straight soldier. 

Finally, all of the above discussion and arguments are rendered moot by what I term "The Reality on the Ground," the increasing frequency of gays and lesbians serving more or less openly in today's military.  The same Palm Center poll of combat veterans cited above contained some strikingly shocking findings regarding the number of homosexuals who are known by their battle buddies, peers and shipmates.  Twenty-three percent of these veterasn knew for certain there was a gay person in their own unit (for enlisted personnel, the percentage was 27%).  Furthermore, of those who were certain, 62% said there were two or more gay people in their unit.  In addition, another 45% of combat troops suspected there were gays or lesbians in their unit and of these, 63% suspected there were at least three gays or lesbians in their unit.  Bottom line: 68% of combat troops either know or suspect there is a gay or lesbian in their own unit.  That's a lot of combat veterans who know or suspect gay peers.  Yet combat readiness and unit cohesion are not suffering as a consequence.  Obviously the "shower issue" is not of consequence to the majority of these troops.  In fact, 73% of the troops replied that they are either very or somewhat comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians.

For the policy-makers in the Pentagon, the question comes down to this: is a simple shower, something that takes maybe five minutes a day and can usually be scheduled at one's discretion, reason enough to force tens of thousands of otherwise capable service men and women to lie and to fear having their paycheck and job security terminated?  When more than two-thirds of combat troops report that they know or suspect there is a gay person in their unit, yet they continue to perform admirably on the field of battle, does the nation still need DADT? 

I would argue that it's time to repeal DADT.