Under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” any servicemember who acknowledges his or her homosexuality by word or deed is discharged. Between 1994 and the end of 2001, more than 7,800 servicemembers were forced out of the military because of the policy.
“America prides itself on being a nation of liberty and tolerance,” said Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch. “Yet it permits its military to remain a bastion of discrimination against gays and lesbians.”
In a letter sent to President Bush with the report, “Uniform Discrimination: The ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Policy of the U.S. Military,” Human Rights Watch asked him to seek an end to discharges on the basis of sexual orientation and to work with Congress to repeal the 1993 law codifying the policy.
“‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ panders to prejudice,” said Fellner. “Gay and lesbian servicemembers are discharged without regard to their skills, training, commitment or courage — victims of the irrational fears and stereotypes some heterosexuals have about them.”
Supporters of “don’t ask, don’t tell” argue that permitting acknowledged gays or lesbians to serve in the military would impair unit cohesiveness and hence military effectiveness. As detailed in the report, there is no evidence to support that argument. Most members of NATO and many U.S. allies participating in Operation Enduring Freedom permit open homosexuals to serve under the same rules as heterosexuals. Indeed, over the last decade, a number of U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and Israel, have changed exclusionary policies and accepted openly gay and lesbian servicemembers in their armed forces without impairing military effectiveness. The integration of gays and lesbians occurs most smoothly when the highest levels of military leadership support policies of non-discrimination, insist that servicemembers abide by rules of conduct applicable to all, and provide appropriate training.
“At one time, supporters of racially segregated military units insisted that racial integration would destroy the military. The same equally indefensible arguments are made about accepting openly gay and lesbian servicemembers,” said Fellner. “Former President Truman recognized that military policy should not be shaped by racial prejudice. President Bush should display the same courage and secure the full acceptance of gays and lesbians into today’s military.”
According to the Human Rights Watch report:
· Between October 2001 and September 2002, the Army discharged ten trained linguists – seven of them proficient in Arabic – because they are gay.
· In 2001 alone, a record 1,256 servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation – almost double the number discharged in 1992, the year prior to the policy’s enactment.
· The policy has cost the military an estimated $218 million to recruit and train replacements for servicemembers discharged because they acknowledged their sexual orientation.
Gay and Lesbian Servicemembers Harassed
By stigmatizing homosexuality, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has perpetuated prejudice against gay and lesbian servicemembers. As detailed in “Uniform Discrimination,” anti-gay harassment remains commonplace, with gay servicemembers subjected to name-calling, threats and even physical attacks. In a Department of Defense survey of service members, 80 percent reported hearing offensive speech, derogatory names, jokes or negative remarks about gays and lesbians in the past year and 85 percent believed that military officials tolerated such behavior to some extent. In 1999, homophobia led to the murder of Army Private First Class Barry Winchell by a fellow soldier who beat him to death with a baseball bat.
The report also documents “lesbian-baiting,” a form of harassment in which male servicemembers label as lesbians women who rebuff their sexual advances or who do not act “feminine” enough.
The Pentagon has done little to protect gay and lesbian servicemembers from hostile treatment or violence by other servicemembers. Harassment of gay and lesbian servicemembers is committed with near total impunity. Many servicemembers endure harassment in silence for fear that reporting it will lead to disclosure of their sexual orientation and hence a discharge. But harassment has made life in the military so intolerable for thousands that they have “voluntarily” acknowledged their homosexuality in order to secure a discharge. Although the Pentagon announced in 2000 an Action Plan to combat antigay harassment, it has failed to implement it.