Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why I Didn't Celebrate the Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Source: Jezebel.com

On September 20th, the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy officially ended. The policy, which had been in place since 1993, banned openly gay men and women from serving in the armed forces. According to Zerlina over at Feministing.com, over 14,000 gay service members were discharged from the armed services under DADT, including many that never "told" anyone about their sexual orientation. Thousands more probably lived in fear of being outed and discharged at any moment.**

The policy was both horrible and homophobic, and enshrined into law the blatant discrimination of gays and lesbians. I believe that everyone - including gays and women - have the right to join the military and I am, therefore, glad to see that this discriminatory policy has been repealed. I am also thankful that those who serve in the military no longer have to live in fear, and I hope that by allowing gays to openly serve in the military those who work and fight alongside them come to respect and appreciate who they are as people.

I will not, however, celebrate the repeal of DADT because I do not support our military and our current wars. I will not call it a "huge historic victory." I will not hold a "Repeal Day" celebration. And I am surprised by the feminist community's ecstatic response to the repeal of DADT.

We cannot think about gay and lesbian access to the military as simply another issue of equal opportunity. This, as feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe argues, implies that, "the military is just one more employer, an employer that happens to measure success in terms of kill ratios rather than miles per gallon or rates of profit."** We cannot divorce military service from our current political location and the wars that we are fighting. "Combat" is not just a constructed notion of space, but a real place where people die -- perhaps at the hands of the gay soldiers whose service, recruitment, and desire to join the military so many are now celebrating.

Our military engages in a long list of atrocious activities, namely torture, the war in Afghanistan, arms deals with countries guilty of human rights violations such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, the exploitation of women, and a global basing system that couldn't be any more colonialist. If progress for gays is achieved through warfare and violence -- done at the expense of other people -- is it really worth it? 

Ultimately, I do not think the repeal of DADT will even dramatically advance gay rights or alter the culture of the military. The military is not a progressive organization and it makes decisions based only on what will help strengthen our military complex. I don't think it is a coincidence that the decision to repeal DADT comes at a time when our forces are stretched thin, when too many soldiers have done too many tours of duty, and public support is at an all-time low. The military desperately needs more soldiers, and the repeal of DADT is a way to ensure they get the manpower they need. And the military needs manpower, because the repeal of DADT precedes any policy that allows women in combat. They'd rather arm gay men than women.

If we look at the presence of women in the military (but not in combat), we find that their growing numbers have not had any positive effect on men's attitudes toward women and women's bodies. On the contrary, misogyny still runs rampant; over thirty percent of women claim they've been sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers, and seventy percent claim they've been harassed.** Having women in the military hasn't (yet) produced any sort of large-scale feminist awakening, and I fear that having gays in the military won't profoundly alter the way most soldiers think about sexuality or gay rights.

Of course, any argument against joining the military reflects privilege. Many join the military because it is a way out of poverty, a way into a college classroom, and even a way to earn US citizenship. I understand that for many it is a good career option, if not the only career option, and that if offers economic security for them and their families. As feminists, however, I believe our focus should remain on a critique of our militarized system and culture, one where the military is often the best career option and killing is often the only way to afford college. 

I argue that it is also inherently privileged to celebrate one group's access to the military without thinking about how it will affect people around the globe. It is essentialist to argue that gays who join the military are somehow more peaceful than their heterosexual counterparts. Soldiers are soldiers, and all of them -- straight, gay, male, female -- have gone through an intensely militarized training process that teaches them to be warriors and killers.

A celebration of the repeal of DADT cannot simultaneously be a celebration of peace or a move toward demilitarization. On the contrary, I believe that these celebrations and even the repeal of DADT itself have distracted us from the problem of militarization by framing a large military in terms of progress and rights.

At best, the repeal of DADT is some progress for gay rights. It rightfully gives them equal access to the military and may have some impact on attitudes toward homosexuality within the US military and/or larger US culture. But a US soldier -- even a gay US soldier -- is participating in a system that does terrible things to people around the world. And we should be just as concerned with the human rights of these people, our sisters and brothers around the globe.

I'll save my celebration for peace.

** Note on terminology, I use "gay" in this post instead of the common LGBTQ because I am unclear how DADT relates to the rights of trans men and women.
** Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You?, 150.
** Helen Benedict, “The Nation: The Plight of Women Soldiers,” National Public Radio, May 6 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103844570 (accessed October 19, 2010).


  1. Shannon,

    You bring up some very good questions. While it's great that the repeal of DADT finally happened, it's only a distraction from the real problem at hand--our industrial military complex. How do we celebrate openness while still being critical of our military? Just because everyone can now serve openly doesn't justify the brutality and intimidation we inflict all over the world. Thanks for sharing your point of view.

  2. I worry so much that this will bring on a new violence towards homosexuals currently serving in the military - just because the US repealed DADT doesn't mean the current members of the military will all of the sudden drop their homophobic views!

  3. Thanks for the brave and articulate blog post, Shannon. You introduce some really powerful questions through your framing of this issue.

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