The logistical, legal, social, and interpersonal tasks that are associated with ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” are unknown to the vast majority of Americans. The idea of just “ending the program” and allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve freely, without the unfair and discriminatory processes that go on now, is a lofty and desirable goal.
The reality, however, is that the United States Armed Forces are being expected to enact social change that has never been accomplished in the general society. The military reflects everything that goes on in general society, including increased tolerance and acceptance of gays who serve their country. But if there is anything that has polarized public opinion, it is this issue.
As an overview, this article will identify some of the major areas and problems that must be considered and resolved for a successful end to discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military.
First: Whether to recognize gay marriage. Only a few American states recognize gay marriage, yet the military is expected to do so in a way that applies to people from all 50 states, the protectorates, and to non citizens who serve in our military. To accept a gay soldier, then to continue the discrimination by not recognizing their marriage and their families, simply continues the discrimination. This presents an impossible task for the military because the nation as a whole has not resolved it with any success.
Second: Where countries have the death penalty for gays and lesbians, there are problems with where they can be stationed. The Air Force has bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where homosexuality is a crime and is forbidden under Muslim law. The death penalty is enforced in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, The United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and 12 northern provinces of Nigeria where Sharia Law is enforced.
While many soldiers are given assignments that keep them out of countries where they would be in harm’s way, there is simply no answer that is suitable for this dilemma. Again, there is a component of America’s conservative religious community which is becoming increasingly outspoken about an American policy of the death penalty for gays, based on their beliefs that divine imperative dictates such action. The military cannot be expected to overcome or correct such levels of intolerance when they exist in the general society
Third: The military provides extra income, housing, medical, travel, moving expenses, commissary and base exchange privileges and a host of other benefits for spouses. Unmarried significant others are not entitled to these benefits. The issue of budgeting for and of legally compensating gay and lesbian soldiers for their dependent spouses becomes problematic when there is no guaranteed recognition or right to legal marriage in the general society. Again, if the general society does not provide a legal framework for gay marriage, then there is very little that the US military can do to create one that only exists outside of the legal umbrella of American society’s definition of legal marriage.
Over 29 countries allow openly gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in their military(1). Five of these countries, Belgium, South Africa, Sweden, Canada, and Spain allow gay marriage (2). The 24 countries that do not recognize gay marriage apparently have no problem with military service without providing the benefits that accrue from recognized marriage. Some of the countries that allow openly gay military service also have enforced conscription to do service, so issues of the “draft” and gays have been resolved in a few countries.
Fourth: he role of military spouses is based on the active duty member’s rank. Higher ranking member’s spouses are involved in an old fashioned business way, as their conduct and contributions reflect upon the soldier. Both higher ranking soldiers and their spouses are expected to contribute to, and to be somewhat involved in community affairs and charities. Military life goes beyond the job, and in most cases, involves a small community that is very close.
While there is a sizable community of military members who are inclusive, tolerant, and even religiously, politically, and socially liberal, there is still a deeply traditional and conservative framework for military social interaction. There will be tremendous resistance to being forced into levels of tolerance and inclusion that the general society has not even achieved.
The problem with American sensibilities rests in the polarity between “all” or “nothing”.. The general society, as reflected in the military is simply nowhere near being of one mind when it comes to resolving the issues of openly gay and lesbian military service, because the next issue would be spousal benefits, gay weddings, and the role of gay spouses in social and community life on military bases.
The problem with comparing the gay civil rights movement to African American civil rights movements is that African American soldiers continued to go through decades of official discrimination and unfair treatment after the armed forces were desegregated.
It is highly unlikely that modern gay and lesbian soldiers would tolerate such decades-long delay and piecemeal provisions of full rights and benefits. It is highly unlikely that conservative and fundamentalist religious service members would tolerate any such change in the entire structure of military duty and social life.
In summary, the military should not be saddled with the role of making wholesale and sudden social progress, or be burdened with a dangerously polarized issue, while the general society is not capable of showing any major progress. A piecemeal approach will have to be taken, beginning with ending “don’t ask, don’t tell”.
“Gay/Lesbian Death Penalty”
2. About.Com : Countries That Allow Gay Marriage