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Thoughts on Congressman Frank’s Comments On Gays in the Military

RADM Alan M. Steinman

Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) provides some insightful and noteworthy commentary on gays serving in the military. He is not only the most senior gay member of Congress, but his historical view of this issue and his political wisdom provide meaningful discussion into the factors impacting any future repeal of the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) law.

Congressman Frank commends the efforts of our many gay activist organizations to influence public opinion and to convince members of Congress that the right to serve is both just and necessary. In particular he cites the important role played by gay veterans, in demonstrating that gays are and always have been contributing members of our nation’s armed forces. He commends specifically the role of our young gay veterans in showing the American public, the Department of Defense (DoD), the White House and Congress that gays can not only serve, but they can serve openly without causing any disruption to unit morale, unit cohesion or combat readiness. He also commends the role played by the many senior gay officers and senior enlisted members who have come out over the past few years, demonstrating that gays can serve in leadership positions just as well as their straight counterparts.

One of the most interesting comments from Congressman Frank concerns the crucial role of straight service members in helping to destroy the fiction that gays undermine combat readiness. It’s one thing for gay veterans to stand up and claim that they served openly without negative consequence, but it’s a more powerful message for their straight peers to put forth the same message. In this regard he referred to the comments of Congressman Patrick Murphy during the recent Congressional subcommittee hearings on DADT. Congressman Murphy is himself an Iraq War veteran, and he took great offense to Elaine Donnelly’s suggestion that straight service members do not have the professionalism to work with gay fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coasties.

I have long advocated the importance of young veterans telling their stories to the public, and I certainly agree with Congressman Frank’s opinion about the important role that straight service members can play. I have personally observed this effect during the Call to Duty Tour, when straight veterans (and sometimes active duty members) in the audience would stand up and testify that they knew there were gays in their own unit and it wasn’t a problem. In fact, during one of the events (in Knoxville, TN), an active duty special forces guy stood up and said that early in his career he had a gay roommate, and he was “a damned fine soldier,” and that (while pointing to each of the speakers on the stage) “he would be honored, honored, honored, honored, honored to serve with any of you guys.” It was indeed a powerful moment for both the audience and for us. More recently, during a similar presentation at the University of Nebraska, a straight soldier was actually one of the event speakers. He had never before known a gay person before joining the Army, and he spoke about how gays in his unit (one of whom is now a close friend) were not an issue.

There is a sound bite that I often use to describe this theme:

“I am a gay soldier. My buddies knew I was gay and didn’t care. I want to serve my country. What’s the problem?”

It makes a very powerful argument that is not easily refuted. Those watching the recent Congressional hearings on DADT couldn’t help but notice that openly gay SSGT Eric Alva, USMC, sitting right next to anti-gay advocate Elaine Donnelly, was the very embodiment of that theme. Nothing Mrs. Donnelly said could refute the reality of Alva’s service as a gay Marine known to his buddies as they went into battle during the opening days of the Iraq War. The fact that he nearly lost his life and sacrificed his leg in service to our nation, while Mrs. Donnelly never served a single day on active duty was also strikingly clear for all to see. 

The Zogby/Palm Center Poll data puts some statistical emphasis behind that issue. 68% of the Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans in that poll knew for certain or suspected there were gays in their own unit, and 73% of them said they were comfortable working around gays and lesbians.

I have one slight area of disagreement with Congressman Frank. Although I certainly concur with him that DADT is, in part, an issue of justice and civil rights, I also think there is an issue of military readiness. Thus I differ with him on the importance of obtaining Pentagon support or at least neutrality for repeal of the law. Congressman Frank is far wiser in the ways of politics and Congress than I can ever hope to be (and that is where, ultimately, the battle needs to be won). But military readiness is most definitely the critical issue for DoD, and however fallacious the philosophical arguments that underlay DADT have proven to be, without convincing the Pentagon of that fallacy and getting them to at least tell Congress and the American people that the military has the leadership to make the change work, I think there might be a problem in obtaining enough votes for repeal. After all, even General Shalikashvili said that he realized gays serving in the military would be good for the gay community, but when he wore his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs hat, he said he needed to know that it would be good for the military, too. Obviously he ultimately came to that realization and endorsed gays serving openly. But he too, like Congressman Frank, wondered about the timing of that change.

Finally, Presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has publicly stated he favors repeal of DADT, stated last week the following about Pentagon input:

"I want to make sure that when we revert 'don't ask, don't tell,' it's gone through a process and we've built a consensus or at least a clarity of what my expectations are so that it works. My first obligation as the president is to make sure that I keep the American people safe and that our military is functioning effectively," Obama said. "Although I have consistently said I would repeal 'don't ask, don't tell,' I believe that the way to do it is make sure that we are working through a process, getting the Joint Chiefs of Staff clear in terms of what our priorities are going to be."

The impact on military readiness is multifold, not only for the reasons the military fears (or once feared), i.e., unit morale, unit cohesion and combat effectiveness, but equally importantly for the numbers of personnel lost each year because of DADT. Combining the numbers kicked out under DADT (about 600-700 per year) with those gays and lesbians leaving the military voluntarily because they’re sick of living a lie, and living in fear of losing their jobs (about 3500 per year, according to a poll of GLBT veterans), DADT results in a loss of about 4000 men and women per year. And those people are all trained, experienced and paid for; they can’t easily be replaced by a raw recruit or OCS graduate. That, in anyone’s estimation, is a lot of lost talent, and it is thus a hit to military readiness.

Finally, Congressman Frank discusses the issue of gay stereotypes. Although it is seemingly trivial to those of us in the gay community, to straights in the military, particularly those in senior leadership positions, and conservative members of Congress who may not know any gay people, the stereotypes and fears of gays and lesbians upon which the entire DADT law was based unfortunately drives many peoples’opinions on the issue. Congressman Frank fears that overtly addressing stereotypes might end up aggravating discrimination of those gays and lesbians who fit the stereotype. I agree with him in that concern. However, disputing the stereotypes that contributed to the law in the first place doesn’t have to be overt. Simply having gay and lesbian military veterans tell their stories in public goes a long way towards defusing the misunderstanding of exactly who we are. Ultimately, repealing DADT will allow all gays and lesbians, no matter what their personality, to serve their nation under the exact same rules and regulations as everyone else. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it?

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