Will DADT Repeal Be No Big Deal?

Over at Foreign Policy, Israeli scholar Danny Kaplan has an article about Israel's experience since it lifted its ban on gays serving in the military back in 1993. The piece's title -- "They're Here, They're Queer, It's No Big Deal" -- pretty much says it all:

The United States and Turkey are now the only NATO military powers that do not allow gays to serve openly, but Israel and other countries have shown that the participation of gay soldiers in combat units presents no risk for military effectiveness. What's more, acknowledging their presence might even improve unite cohesion.

It is important to understand that even without restrictions, most gay soldiers do not "come out" in combat settings. Only a few of the soldiers I have interviewed confided their sexuality in friends from the unit, and they often did so shortly before leaving their position. Most of them developed strategies to separate between their various personal and social identities. One soldier, a gay activist prior to his enlistment, explained to me: "I don't really see that the army and my identity have anything to do with each other. Just like there is a separation of religion and state, I draw a line between the army and my ‘religion.'" This ability to balance conflicting identities is hardly unusual in the army. Soldiers of various ethnic and religious backgrounds similarly adjust to the melting pot of military culture.

This is why the policy of "don't ask, don't tell" has little relevance to the reality of military life. Despite what military officials want to ask or insist on not asking, and despite what gay activists want soldiers to tell about their sexuality, most straight soldiers are not interested in hearing it, and many gay soldiers are not interested in telling it. They simply are what they are and find ways to function together. Policies restricting the participation of gay soldiers paradoxically make sexuality a more salient issue.

This couldn't help but bring to mind the now-infamous NPR interview with former Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter. When Melissa Block pointed out to him that there are lots of gay people now serving in the military, he replied, "But they aren't open about it, like you just said. It's like if you want to work for NPR, you don't go to work and on the first day say, hey, I want everybody to know that I'm gay." (Hunter also contended that the "special bond" between members of the military will be broken "if you open up the military to transgenders, to hermaphrodites, to gays and lesbians.")

What are supporters of the ban missing that the Israelis understand? It has only been in recent years that the broader public has become aware of the mundane reality of most gay people's lives. Many older people like Hunter (and the Republican membership of the Senate Armed Services Committee, apparently), haven't quite gotten that message. They seem to believe that there are only two states of gayness: closeted, and RuPaul, with nothing in between. They seem to think that existence as a gay person, in the military or elsewhere, is one long gay pride parade, where everyone is required to dance in assless chaps (see the classic article from The Onion, "Gay-Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance of Gays Back 50 Years"). An exit from the closet, whether by a soldier or anyone else, must be performed in hot pants, to the pulsing strains of "It's Raining Men."

If that's what you think, it's only understandable that the prospect of openly gay people serving sounds like a recipe for chaos. But chances are that when it actually happens, things are going to go a lot more smoothly than the ban's proponents fear.

-- Paul Waldman

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