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Barney Frank [D-MA]

Talks About Gays in the Military

by Denny Meyer

Representative Barney Frank, the longest-serving openly-gay member of Congress, is perhaps our most erudite and knowledgeable spokesman for our American rights.  He has no hesitation to speak his mind very clearly and forcefully as an authoritative voice for democracy.

On September 12th, Congressman Frank took time from urgent economic issues facing our nation to discuss the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy [DADT] with Gay Military Signal [GMT].

GMS:  Many senior retired military officers believe that the DADT law cannot be repealed without approval, or at least neutrality on the issue, by the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff. What is your view, as a congressman, on this?

Barney Frank: I don't agree.  I think that if Barack Obama wins and we pick up four or five Senate seats then we will get it done.  I do think that the Iraq situation will have to get resolved first; once that's done, as I hope it will fairly soon, we can get it [repealing DADT] done.

GMS: The media present a lot of stereotypes of gay people that are contrary to the way real people in the military are indistinguishable from their straight fellow service members.  Do you think we need to counter those stereotypes more vigorously to negate misconceptions?

BF:  The problem with that is that it might reinforce negative perceptions of some who might conform to some aspects of those stereotypes.  It doesn't matter about stereotypes,  the problem is that people want to forget about diversity.  I would not put a lot of focus on trying to get rid of stereotypes; I think that runs the risk of reinforcing the prejudices that the stereotypes embody.

GMS:  How important are current and past efforts that show real former combat veterans, such as the Call to Duty Tour of gay Iraq and Afghanistan combat vets speaking on college campuses and other venues?

BF:  Very important!  But not to counter stereotypes, but to present people who have done their work and refute the notion that there's a problem.  Here's the issue: The argument has become, or evolved,  that "it is not we who are bad, it is that there is too much prejudice against us [to permit gay people to serve effectively in our armed forces]."  So, having people come back [from combat] and say, "I served and the people I served with in my unit knew that I'm gay and it did not freak out anybody."  That is the best way to refute the notion that prejudice of others would make open service a problem.   Rather than issues of conforming, we need people to recount positive experiences with fellow service members who knew they were gay or lesbian.

GMS:  In light of the above, would it be effective, in the effort to repeal DADT, to expand such efforts with gay veterans appearing on TV and other media?

BF: It would be helpful if some gay or lesbian ex service members could appear with straight ex service members saying, "oh yeah, we knew, there was no problem at all."

GMS: Opponents of openly gay service continue to portray openly serving gay people as a corrupting influence; how could we counter that?

BF: Don't worry about opponents doing what they do!  What we need to do is have public appearances with veterans who are gay or lesbian appear with straight veterans who knew about them, saying that its nonsense to believe there was any problem.  As an example of this, Congressman and veteran Patrick Murphy became very indignant [in the recent Congressional hearing on DADT, in which opponents spoke of how offended straight service members would be serving with gay people], saying, "What do you think?  That I'm some bigot, that if I knew someone was gay I couldn't work with him?"  So, I think straight veterans speaking out would be very helpful.

GMS: The recent Zogby poll of Iraq and Afghanistan combat vets showed that 78% did not care if the people they served with are gay.  Doesn't that negate the DADT philosophy?

BF: We don't have to win the debate of 15 years ago; I wish we hadn't lost it.  But, its now possible to say, "You know, 15 years ago was a different story.  Now we have people like Gen. Shalikashvili and others [publicly in favor of repeal].  We can now say, there have been a lot of changes in American attitude.  The argument has always been "not that we would be deficient but that there would be a negative reaction to us."   The world has changed now; that's what the poll demonstrates, that the younger people have no problem [serving with gays].

GMS:  What is your personal recollection of that time back in 1992 in Congress?

BF: Early on there was a court decision [against open service]; Colin Powell was terribly damaging to us by coming out strongly against it and saying the issue had nothing in common with racial issues.  Sam Nunn also did the same; and at that time we did not have the votes to sustain [a change in policy].

GMS: Urvashi Viad, in her book Virtual Equality, suggested that President Clinton was sort of sandbagged in that situation in which he'd promised to allow open service, what is your recollection?

BF: Yes; in fact, a decision was made before he even became president; it was not his fault.  A decision was made by a federal judge in the Keith Meinhold case in December of '92.  And people said, why didn't he [Clinton] order Powell to obey?  But it was because when Powell spoke out against open service Clinton wasn't yet president.

GMS: In recent years, three retired flag officers and more below flag rank came out as gay; and 28 straight flag officer spoke out earlier this year for repeal of DADT.  How effective do you think all of that is?

BF:  It's helpful; both are helpful.  With the flag officers who were out, it demonstrates that [leadership] is not a problem.  Especially among the straight flag officers, it demonstrates the changed thinking on this issue.  Its really more important hearing from the straight people than from us, because the argument has always been not that we would be deficient but about straight people's reaction would be the problem.  The more we can deal with that the better.

GMS:  Regarding Senator McCain, should he become president, how intransigent do you think he really is on this issue?

BF: What makes you think he would not be?  He was an ardent opponent of it from '93 on; this is self-delusion to suggest that he doesn't mean what he says.

GMS:  How effective do you think our organizations, dedicated to the repeal of DADT, are?

BF:  I think collectively we've had a very good effect on working with public opinion and leading to where we now probably have a majority [in Congress] for it.

GMS: What advice would you give our organizations to become more effective in working to repeal DADT?

BF:  Have people lobby their individual members of the House and Senate.  The best way to do that is to have people say to them that, "This is important to me and I need you to vote this way."  And have teams of gay and straight former service members to make that message to them.

GMS:  Now, although this is not actually part of the debate, in the interest of inclusion, what about Transgender service?  Just in the past month a survey of transgender service members and veterans by Transgender American Veterans Association, analyzed by the Palm Center, revealed that they are being discriminated against, as if they were gay or lesbian, under DADT because the military often doesn't understand the difference.

BF:  I think the rule is that people should not be discriminated against due to their gender identity.  Now, I hope we will get a bill through on job discrimination.  But we are not going to get trough a bill on integrating people [in the military] with one set of sex organs to be identified as the other sex.

GMS: Last night Senator Obama was at a forum at Columbia University and he was asked about military readiness  and he talked about criminals being given waivers, and there was no mention by him of allowing gay people to serve and thereby reduce recruiting shortfalls.  Should he have?

BF: What kind of obsession with our own issues is that?  And by the way, let's be very honest; our objection is not because it hurts military readiness; it's not what we are really talking about.  We are talking about fairness.  I wish we could get out of Iraq. And if we were in a situation of peace in the world, and we did not need much of a military, would we not be just as eager as we are to get this [ban] dropped?  Let's not use phony arguments.   We are in this because of the fairness issue.

  2008  Gay Military Signal