“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
—Epitaph of Leonard P. Matlovich, the first gay service member to fight the ban on lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in the military
I have never been to war and will never know just how horrific and traumatizing it can be. I have friends and family who went to war, and what I do know is that they were never the same. Even when you can’t see the scars, they are clearly visible.
The loss of life of our service members, coupled with the staggering civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, have anyone with an ounce of humanity wishing and working for an end to these deadly conflicts. Yet, against this backdrop, we are pushing Congress for a vote to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)—ending the practice of discharging lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members.* If DADT is repealed, which many in our community have long been working to achieve, it will surely mean that more of our literal and figurative brothers and sisters will be in harm’s way. But despite that sobering reality, when the ban is finally lifted, one of the most damaging sources of political and economic harm to our community will be gone.
DADT stigmatizes us, traffics in the most offensive stereotypes, and perpetuates the notion that we cannot be trusted or counted upon to do the hardest, most risky, and dangerous work. And if that human toll were not bad enough, the ban has a devastating economic impact on those who can least afford it—because they already face discrimination based on their gender and race, as well as their sexual orientation.
Many people do not know that the U.S. military is one of the largest employers in the country, and may well employ more lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals than any other single employer. According to a study released last week by The Williams Institute, nearly 71,000 lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals are currently serving in the US military.
Many people also do not know that the impact of DADT falls most heavily on women and people of color. Even though women make up a much smaller percentage of soldiers in every branch of service, women are discharged under DADT at much higher rates than men.
In 2008, the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) reported that while women comprised only 15% of the armed forces, women made up 34% of the service members discharged under DADT. Some branches of service are worse for women than others. In the Air Force, women made up only 20% of members, yet accounted for 62% of Air Force discharges under DADT. The disparity is even more pronounced for people of color. According to SWAN, non-white active duty service members represented 29.4% of the total military population, but comprised 45% of all DADT discharges in 2008.
According to the new Williams Institute study, the disparate impact of DADT on women and minorities has only gotten worse: “It is clear that women and racial/ethnic minorities now bear a larger portion of the burden imposed by the policy than they did when the policy was first implemented in 1993.”
In my perfect world, war would never be the answer, and the military would be a fraction of its current, bloated size. But my vision is not our present reality. Excluding lesbian, gay, and bisexual citizens from the opportunity we give to any other willing individual to serve in the military serves no interest. So long as the ban continues, it will transmit the powerful message that our very existence is shameful and that we are unfit to participate as full citizens. And it will inflict the most economic harm on those who can least afford it.
Ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will not lessen the ravages of war or end the gross economic disparities faced by many Americans. But it will end the cruel and counterproductive discharges of fine soldiers, and put a stop to one of the most blatant and stigmatizing forms of workplace discrimination against our community. That is a result worth fighting for.
*Appallingly, even if DADT is repealed, transgender people would continue to be barred from military service. Clearly, there is much work yet to be done.