One of the standard arguments against repealing the policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the American military is that the armed forces are not the place for “social engineering” and that forcing straight soldiers to live in close quarters with openly gay soldiers would be disruptive and therefore destructive to unit cohesion. I’ll start right off by acknowledging that I did not serve in the military, so I’m not speaking from first-hand experience. But I know enough people, both gay and straight, who have served, and to a person they say the argument doesn’t hold water. And it doesn’t take a degree in sociology or cultural anthropology to know that the military, like a lot of institutions that force people of different backgrounds and experiences together, actually depends a great deal upon the success of social engineering.
With an all-volunteer service today, it perhaps isn’t as obvious as it was during the time of the draft, but when the new recruits show up at boot camp and are processed into the barracks, the social engineering begins: a kid from the Bronx ends up sharing a bunk space with a kid from El Paso; a boy who went to prep school in New England is showering with a guy from the projects in Chicago. There are enough differences in the racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds that being gay — something I doubt would get announced at roll call — is just one more part of the mix. The drill sergeant’s duty during boot camp is to take these kids from all of these different backgrounds and dismantle these differences — to basically strip away the recruit’s unique identity as a person — and mold these men and women into a unit that thinks and works as one. The fact that one or more of them is gay doesn’t make it any harder — or easier — to form a unit than the fact that one or more of them is black, Hispanic, Jewish, or a Yankees fan.
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The next argument is that soldiers need to trust each other in order to place their lives in hands of others, and that straight soldiers couldn’t trust a fellow soldier if there was some question about his or her sexual orientation. That logic fails on several levels. First, speaking as an openly gay man, I don’t understand why being candid about it as opposed to concealing would be a cause for distrust among other people. Being honest about it, whether or not it makes others uncomfortable for their own reasons, should form a foundation of trust. Second, just because I am an openly gay man doesn’t mean I go around announcing it. I don’t wear a sign — and trust me, with my fashion sense, I don’t even fit the stereotype of being a natty dresser — nor do I bring it up in conversations with my colleagues or associates, even though I work in a place that is, by law, non-discriminatory. It’s not that I’m ashamed of it; it’s just not relevant to my job, and neither should it be when you’re a soldier. Besides, one of the first things you learn as a gay person is that it is something you keep to yourself. Our society has taught us well that conformity with social norms, whether you’re eight or eighteen, is paramount, and those social norms are that boys are supposed to like girls and when you feel an attraction towards boys, you don’t announce it unless you’re looking for trouble. We learn at a very early age, long before sexuality rears its throbbing head, that it is far better to be cautious with your feelings. Trust, therefore, is a major component in social interaction. Not telling someone you are gay until you are fully comfortable with them is the norm, and learning to sublimate your feelings in a group is a part of the deal. (By the way, there’s a difference between sublimating your feelings and repressing them. In the first case, you’re comfortable with who you are, you accept it, and therefore you don’t feel the need to hold it up to others for validation. In the second case, you battle the demons that society, religion, or family force you to create in your own mind that deny your own whole self. That leads to all sorts of trouble.) The true sign of maturity in any person is that they are able to acknowledge their own identity and realize that what they are by the grace of genetics, nature, and social interaction is just a part of who they are.
No one has any delusion that the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell will make life in the military any easier for gay or lesbian soldiers any more than President Truman’s order in 1948 desegregating the troops magically wiped away racial discrimination in the ranks. Human nature is what it is and no law or order can legislate tolerance. There will still be gay-bashing in the service. There will still be soldiers who are uncomfortable being around someone whom they see as a threat, but as is often the case, the soldier — and the institution — that feels threatened is the one who is the victim of intolerance. Yielding to fears and prejudice goes against the basic creed that has defined the code of military service since time out of mind: duty, honor, and country. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell goes against all three.