x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Gay soldiers take aim at sacking policy

Thousands of servicemen and women have been dismissed for disclosing their sexual orientation, but many are now fighting back.

Lt Dan Choi, who came out as gay in March and was subsequently dismissed from the US army, stands on the bonnet of a Humvee in south Baghdad with an Iraqi sheikh.
Lt Dan Choi, who came out as gay in March and was subsequently dismissed from the US army, stands on the bonnet of a Humvee in south Baghdad with an Iraqi sheikh.

WASHINGTON // Lt Dan Choi is a West Point graduate, a combat veteran and one of a small number of US soldiers fluent in Arabic. Recently Mr Choi was dismissed from the US army for uttering three words: "I am gay." Mr Choi's confession - on a cable television station - violated the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which forbids gay soldiers from disclosing their sexual orientation. It took three months for a letter to arrive informing Mr Choi of his dismissal from the New York National Guard for "moral and professional dereliction". When it arrived last week, Mr Choi went back on TV, promising to fight the ruling "tooth and nail". "I was angry. I mean, the letter is basically saying bottom line, Lieutenant Dan Choi, you're fired," Mr Choi said on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. "You're a West Point graduate, you're fired. You're an Arabic linguist, you're fired. You deployed to Iraq, you're willing to deploy again, doesn't matter. Because you're gay, that's enough grounds to kick you out." Mr Choi is one of about 13,000 soldiers dismissed under "don't ask, don't tell" since the policy was instituted in 1994, activist groups say. A 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, said that among the 9,500 who had been dismissed at the time, about 750 held "critical occupations", including 300 with such "important" foreign-language skills as Arabic and Farsi. The report estimated it cost the defence department US$95 million (Dh348m) to recruit and train replacements. A defence department spokeswoman, Cynthia Smith, said 94 linguists had been dismissed under the policy in the past decade. The policy began under Bill Clinton as a compromise between those who wanted to lift a long-standing ban on gays in the military and others, including Pentagon officials, who wanted the ban to remain. While the final compromise changed little on paper - Congress upheld the ban on gays in the military - the "don't ask" part of the policy meant the military would not actively seek out gay members for dismissal. Questions relating to sexual orientation were removed from written forms. Barack Obama has said he is committed to lifting the ban. This month, the US president sent a handwritten letter to Sandy Tsao, an army officer who wrote to him after informing her superiors she is gay and subsequently receiving a dismissal notice. Mr Obama's reply said he was "committed to changing our current policy", but that "it will take some time to complete [partly because it needs congressional action]". In March, a bill to repeal the ban was introduced in the US House of Representatives by Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat. Among the bill's 141 co-sponsors were several military veterans, including Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat who earned the Bronze Star in Iraq. But many others from the military ranks have voiced their opposition. In March, a group of more than 1,000 retired military officers - including 40 four-star generals - wrote to Mr Obama, imploring him to uphold the ban on the grounds that allowing gays to serve openly would hurt "morale, discipline, unit cohesion and overall military readiness". The retired officers wrote that lifting the ban would have "adverse effects on the willingness of parents who lend their sons and daughters to military service" and eventually "break" the armed forces. Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative group in Michigan that focuses on military and social issues, said it was unfair to make soldiers live alongside gay peers in conditions of "forced intimacy". "We don't allow women to share their private quarters with men. Same principle," said Ms Donnelly, who also opposes allowing women in combat. Ms Donnelly and other opponents of lifting the ban point to a December poll by the Military Times, which surveyed about 1,900 active-duty subscribers to the newspaper about their attitudes towards gays in the military. Fifty-eight per cent opposed lifting the ban and 10 per cent said they would not re-enlist if the policy changed. Some have questioned the value of the poll, saying Military Times subscribers tend to be older "careerists", who are more conservative than rank-and-file troops, who may be more accepting. David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, said that even if 10 per cent of active-duty personnel threatened to quit, that was still lower than the percentage of soldiers who threatened to walk out when women were admitted to the military in the 1970s, or when minorities were in the 1940s. Many gay rights advocates say there is wider acceptance of gays in the military now than when "don't ask, don't tell" was instituted. An April poll by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut showed that 56 per cent of the more than 2,000 voters surveyed believe the ban should be repealed. "Times have changed," said Jeffrey Voigt, who retired as a lieutenant colonel last summer after never revealing he was gay during his 21 years in the service. Still, the West Point graduate and veteran of both Iraq wars said he was careful not to reveal his sexual orientation. "There was a certain amount of editing that had to be done, and I think it was uncomfortable," he said. Mr Voigt said that if he had revealed his homosexuality, it would not have been a distraction for the other soldiers. "They may have been a little uncomfortable or surprised if I said I was gay," he said, "but I don't think they would have changed the way they worked with me at all." sstanek@thenational.ae