In Military, New Debate Over Policy Toward Gays
By Elisabeth Bumiller
New York Times - May 1, 2009
WEST POINT, N.Y. — Here at the military academy that is nearly as old as the nation itself, two cadets recently engaged in a modern debate: whether they agreed with President Obama’s pledge to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly.
“From what I’ve heard from my classmates, people are kind of against it,” said Daniel Szatkowski, a senior from Edmond, Okla. But Adrienne Rolle, a senior from Brooklyn, said she had no problem with lifting the ban, although she said that some of her male classmates did.
“People are more comfortable with ignorance,” Cadet Rolle said of the reality that gay men and lesbians already serve in the military.
West Point is not a perfect microcosm of the armed forces, but recent conversations with the cadets who will become the Army’s next generation of leaders reflect uncertainty about what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has characterized as a “complex and difficult problem.”
While Mr. Obama has promised to get rid of the 16-year-old policy that allows gay men and lesbians to serve only if they keep their sexual orientation secret, Mr. Gates has said that both he and the president want to push the issue “down the road a bit.”
Advocacy groups have stepped into the vacuum. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which represents some of the 13,000 gay men and lesbians discharged from the military since the policy took effect, is intensifying lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill — changing the policy requires legislation — and calling on the president to make good on his word.
“If he doesn’t speak up, he’s going to end up O.K.’ing the firing of service members for being gay,” said Aubrey Sarvis, the group’s executive director.
In recent years, prominent retired generals and admirals have also urged repeal, among them Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the policy was adopted after a blowup over the issue in the early days of the Clinton administration.
On the other side, some 1,000 retired officers supported by the conservative Center for Military Readiness sent an “open letter” to Mr. Obama saying they were “greatly concerned” about the impact of repeal on recruitment, morale and unit cohesion.
“How would women in the military feel if they were required to accommodate men in their private quarters?” said Elaine Donnelly, the center’s president.
Col. Thomas A. Kolditz, the chairman of West Point’s department of behavioral sciences and leadership who discusses “don’t ask, don’t tell” in his classes, said that cadets were roughly split for and against openly gay service but that most did not feel strongly about their views.
Colonel Kolditz predicted that a large majority would readily follow any order on the issue from the commander in chief, although there was, he said, “a certain amount of unease based on not having clear expectations as to how the implementation would occur.”
Polls now show that the majority of Americans support openly gay service — a majority did not in 1993 — but there have been no recent broad surveys of the current 1.4 million active-duty service members. A 2008 census by The Military Times of predominantly Republican and largely older subscribers found that 58 percent were opposed to efforts to repeal the policy; in 2006, a poll by Zogby International of 545 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that three-quarters were comfortable around gay service members.
Mr. Gates, for one, has expressed skepticism about how accurately polls reflect true opinion on the policy. “To get people’s real feelings about it, you have to have almost a one-on-one private conversation,” he told reporters last week. “I think it’s very difficult for people to speak in front of their peers on this issue.”
Gen. James T. Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, has polled more than 80 of his generals on how strongly the Defense Department should challenge the policy, although he has declined to make public the results. Other Pentagon officials are studying how the British, Canadian and Australian militaries lifted their own bans on openly gay service.
At West Point, cadets have been encouraged to discuss the topic openly, so there is less constraint here than in the military over all about publicly airing views on what for now is a law of the land. “You can have feelings and opinions about a law without breaking it,” Colonel Kolditz said.
Faculty members said that cadets’ opinions were often shaped less by the military than by their own personal backgrounds, and that those from religious families or from rural areas were sometimes less comfortable with the idea of openly gay and lesbian service members.
Another factor, faculty members said, was that most students had not yet served in combat units, and so remained apprehensive about what to expect in close quarters from openly gay service members.
Still, a number of cadets reacted to the possible repeal of the law with a shrug. “I really don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal,” said Bill Mynatt, a senior from Knoxville, Tenn. “There are gay soldiers serving and doing their jobs well, and it’s not going to change.”
Cadet Mynatt said that when some classmates expressed the view that openly gay soldiers would make them uncomfortable, left unspoken was the fear of sexual harassment.
“Which is already against regulations,” Cadet Mynatt said. “It’s the same for a gay soldier and a straight soldier.”
Others were less positive. “If President Obama says, ‘Let’s get rid of this policy,’ I guess we don’t have a choice,” said James Buensuceso, a junior from Poway, Calif. The policy, Cadet Buensuceso said, was in place “to protect gays and lesbians from the military.”
Greg Stoner, a senior from Menifee, Calif., said there might be a difference in units once the policy was enacted, “but if it’s done right, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
Nathaniel Frank, the author of “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America,” said that while military opinion matters, “we don’t poll the military to decide if we should invade Iraq, to decide if black service members should serve with white ones or if women are needed in combat.” The germane question, he said, was, “Can you work with people who are different from you?”
Colonel Kolditz, while declining to give his personal views, said, “It’s something that should be solved, and I hope it is soon.”