A Gay Brigade

by James Kirchick on December 5, 2009

First published in Advocate.com, November 20, 2009

In a Tuesday prime-time address to the nation, President Barack Obama will announce a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Eight years into the conflict, the fate of the central Asian country - which hosted al-Qaeda in the years leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and where Osama bin Laden is still suspected to be hiding - hangs in the balance. Coalition casualties have risen sharply since January, and public support for the war - which was near universal when it was first launched - has fallen to an all-time low. Before a veterans group in August, Obama termed Afghanistan a "war of necessity." Yet the fact that the president has waited almost four months since his handpicked general, Stanley A. McChrystal, entered a request for 40,000 additional troops to make this announcement has earned him a steady current of criticism from conservative commentators, who have accused him of "dithering" and indecisiveness.

It isn't just the right that has accused the president of not fulfilling his promises. Along with finishing the job in Afghanistan, another pledge Obama made during his campaign was that he would lift the military's ban on openly gay soldiers, "don't ask, don't tell." That this too has yet to materialize has earned the wrath of gay activists, some of whom are now calling for a boycott of the Democratic National Committee until the repeal passes.

There's an old saying in politics that you can't please all the people all of the time, yet the dual conundrums of Afghanistan and gays in the military present Obama with a unique opportunity to get further than most in accomplishing just that. To quiet down anger on the right caused by his hesitancy to ramp up America's commitment to Afghanistan, as well as consternation on the left due to the lack of progress on DADT repeal, here's one option for our beleaguered commander in chief: Dispatch an all openly gay unit to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda. With an overstretched military worn out by repeated stop-loss orders and nearly 13,000 gay soldiers discharged from the armed forces since the enactment of DADT in 1994, this proposal attempts to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone. It will not please everyone entirely, but politics, after all, is the art of compromise. So hear this one out.

Many of the people arguing for a troop surge in Afghanistan - Republicans who warn that failure to stabilize the country would inevitably result in another attack on American soil - are also the loudest voices in favor of keeping the ban on openly gay soldiers. If we take them at their word that the safety and security of the American people is their highest priority, how could they oppose such a plan? They may not like the notion of openly gay people serving in the armed forces, but surely it's a better option than retreating from Afghanistan and letting the country fall to anarchy and the possible restoration of the Taliban.

Similarly, while a majority of Americans support repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the energy for that cause comes from liberals, the vast majority of whom, according to a succession of polls over the past few months, support withdrawal. They may blanch at the prospect of escalating our military effort in that country, but with no immediate repeal of DADT in sight, might they be willing to dampen their reflexive opposition to the exercise of American military might if doing so would allow openly gay soldiers to prove their mettle on the battlefield?

To be sure, the existence of an all-gay unit - and let's call it the "Leonard Matlovich Brigade," in honor of the gay Air Force officer whose fight to stay in the military, the first time a gay soldier ever publicly challenged the ban, made the cover of Time magazine in 1975 - may not necessarily disprove the chief claim against allowing openly homosexual soldiers to serve alongside heterosexual ones.

That argument posits that the mere presence of visible homosexuals would demean "unit cohesion." Ideally, openly gay soldiers should be allowed to fight alongside their straight comrades (in some cases they already do, thanks to more enlightened commanding officers who are willing to overlook the military's counterproductive policy). Such a development would prove the speciousness of this fear, a fear that has already been roundly rebutted by countless straight soldiers like Congressman Patrick Murphy, who has taken the lead on getting rid of DADT. But a half a loaf is better than nothing, and allowing gays to serve openly in any capacity would work to break down this antiquated prejudice.

The existence of an all-gay unit would put the lie to the charge that gays are effeminate and weak, and place supporters of the ban in a very difficult position. With openly gay soldiers risking their lives on the battlefield, and volunteering to do so, how could they persist in their support for keeping DADT intact? But the most satisfying aspect of this policy would be its effect on our Islamist enemies, who not so long ago were burying gays alive, crushing them under brick walls, and throwing them off the roofs of buildings (not to mention throwing acid on the faces of unveiled women and denying the right of girls to go to school). What humiliation, what shame these barbarians would endure if after every successful terrorist assassination accomplished by the Leonard Matlovich Brigade, U.S. Central Command issued a press release announcing that yet another Taliban fighter bit the dust at the hands of warrior homosexuals.

{ 15 comments }

Jimmy December 6, 2009 at 3:22 pm

“They may blanch at the prospect of escalating our military effort in that country, but with no immediate repeal of DADT in sight, might they be willing to dampen their reflexive opposition to the exercise of American military might if doing so would allow openly gay soldiers to prove their mettle on the battlefield?”

-It is doubtful that those who oppose American military adventurism, and support the repeal of DADT, would adjust their views about these two wars just because openly serving gay soldiers get the opportunity to “prove” their mettle – read “manhood”. To do so would be repulsively self serving. Gay and lesbian soldiers have already exhibited bravery and excellence in service to their country on the battlefield.

When DADT is repealed, and gay and lesbians who want to can volunteer to be part of an all gay fighting unit, that would be fine. Sequestering gays into all-gay units, which is something I don’t know if you are calling for or not, can not be the only way gays and lesbians can serve. When soldiers are asked, as in the latest RAND Corporation survey, they report that serving with gays or lesbians is really an insignificant factor with regard to unit cohesiveness. What they deem more important is high quality officers, proper training and access to the best equipment.

It is a fantasy that we will eliminate the Taliban from Afghanistan; that is for the Afghan people to do. It would be more realistic for us to try to convince those warlords not to associate with al-Qaeda, and reward that behavior. The picture you paint of all-gay units may be more fitting for a Hollywood treatment along the lines of Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds.”

Amicus December 6, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Interesting.

Not possible, under existing law, most likely, to establish such a group.

As a thought experiment, then? Well, the whole idea of proving mettle seems a red herring. Has anyone asserted that gay or lesbian soldiers cannot fight well? It would be foolish to do so, since they complete/have completed the same training…

Jorge December 7, 2009 at 8:33 am

I doubt this is logistically possible. It would take a lot of time to recruit, train, and deploy a brand new unit of openly gay soldiers, and Obama has already set the timetable on Afghanistan. Creating a new gay unit out of already enlisted soldiers, on the other hand, would be chaos. I’m concerned it would impact the units in which gay soldiers left in some detrimental way, there would need to be some kind of process by which gay soldiers apply to transfer, if for some reason too many apply does that mean the excess are kicked out?, etc. To be honest I consider this a really dumb idea.

Bobby December 7, 2009 at 3:18 pm

It’s not logistically impossible, there are plenty of gays who have military training yet where discharged or are planning to come out.

Besides, how do you think blacks where integrated in the military? From the days of George Washintong to WW2 there where segregated army units, it helped the blacks prove their worth as soldiers, eventually Harry Truman ended military segregation and the rest is history.

GLB Platoons are a great idea. I keep out the T because I don’t know if transexuals can be integrated.

Lymis December 7, 2009 at 5:41 pm

The whole point of DADT is that straight people cannot handle serving with someone they know to be gay. The (effectively meaningless) change from “gay people cannot serve at all because they are unfit” to “gay people cannot serve openly” was entirely about straight people and their unit cohesion.

And no, that is not explicit in the text of the bill itself, but it was pretty much ALL that the surrounding debate, discussion, and subsequent defense of the policy was about. Which makes sense, because if the only way you can tell someone is gay is because they come out or get caught, then obviously, they were doing their job just fine up until then.

Segregating gay people into separate units does nothing whatsoever to change that – in fact, it supports the idea that straight people shouldn’t be expected to be professional enough to get over it.

Bobby December 7, 2009 at 7:00 pm

“Segregating gay people into separate units does nothing whatsoever to change that – in fact, it supports the idea that straight people shouldn’t be expected to be professional enough to get over it.”

—In the past I considered joining the military, but then I realized, “wait a minute, I’m going to be in an environment where anyone can make a homophobic comment yet if I stand up for my beliefs I might be labelled gay.” So segregated units might be a great temporary solution until our military decides is ready for integration.

Besides, segregation is a lot cheaper than expelling soldiers for coming out. Think about it, it can take $20,000 just to train one soldier, so every discharge is costing us money.

If segregation is a step towards equality, I’ll take it. Besides, wouldn’t you like to serve with your fellow gays?

james December 8, 2009 at 9:44 am

it’s a suidice mission, sir. who should we deploy?

send in the pink patrol. that will show them.

show who, sir?

DragonScorpion December 13, 2009 at 7:20 am

I’m not seeing any reason why we need to use units segregated by sexual orientation. To my knowledge it hasn’t been used, at least not widely, in the 20 or so nations who allow gays to serve openly in their militaries. And I’m not aware of them having problems with this arrangement, either.

The reasons for not allowing gays to serve openly in the military are merely excuses. In fact, the same sort of weak, discredited excuses which were offered for not racially desegregating the military 3 generations ago — ‘gays are incapable of performing their duty with distinction’; ‘gays serving openly will undermine unit cohesion and morale’.

As for segregation as an alternative, this is a very archaic notion. This should be a push for equality, not appeasing and prolonging prejudices. Of course there is going to be tension and even hostility during such an adjustment. And it will take some time, decades before much of this subsides. But the exact same thing happened when the military was racially de-segregated in 1948 by President Truman.

Just as now, much of the military brass didn’t like the idea of integration and prejudiced whites made the lives of black soldiers very difficult afterwards. However, this was a necessary step to get to where we are today, a U.S. military that is more diverse, more cohesive and less racially divided than ever before.

Prejudices, people’s attitudes, they’re ability to get along don’t change overnight, but they are still necessary. If we believe in justice for all then we need to uphold that, as unambiguously and unconditionally as possible. And when we end Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell, we should not settle for segregation in its stead. It isn’t fair, and I would argue it isn’t necessary either. This aside, it would be yet one more vestige of discrimination that would someday have to be removed.

Bobby December 14, 2009 at 10:14 am

Yet we segregate women, women train separaretly from the men and they’re not always allowed to serve in combat (which I’m against). Women also don’t shower with men (except in sci-fi movies. If the choice is between being segregated or forced to stay in the closet to serve, I would rather have segregation.

We can have a dual-system where you can either follow DADT and serve with the breeders, but if you violate DADT then you can be sent to the Gay Brigade. It’s a lot cheaper than just discharging them, and it would prevent those who are straight and want to get out of the army from saying that they’re gay to achieve that goal.

Lymis December 15, 2009 at 10:29 am

Let’s also not ignore the fact that segregation like this would severely hamper promotion prospects. Promotion would end up effective only within the limited pool of gay servicemembers, and because they would have been kept from service in things like combat, sea duty, etc, they wouldn’t have the chance to rise in the ranks.

Seriously, this is all based on the fact that our Marines are terrified of getting jumped in the shower? How insulting (to the straight Marines especially, but the gay ones as well) is that?

Bobby December 15, 2009 at 3:53 pm

“Let’s also not ignore the fact that segregation like this would severely hamper promotion prospects. Promotion would end up effective only within the limited pool of gay servicemembers, and because they would have been kept from service in things like combat, sea duty, etc, they wouldn’t have the chance to rise in the ranks.”

—So what? There was a time blacks didn’t have a lot of places wehre they could rise either. Let’s face it, the military culture is different from the civilian culture, why not let it catch up by using temporary segregation?

“Seriously, this is all based on the fact that our Marines are terrified of getting jumped in the shower? How insulting (to the straight Marines especially, but the gay ones as well) is that?”

—To the straight marines it isn’t insulting, they are simply afraid that our gays are gonna be checking out their junk in the shower. Why? Because that’s what they would do if women were allowed to shower with men.

DragonScorpion December 15, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Agreed, Lymis. It really is insulting in quite a few ways. I think we should expect a little more professionalism out of our serving men and women, and I think most of them are more than capable of it.

Those to whom it really is going to be a problem and are thus not performing their duties as expected would need to be dealt with and possibly discharged. The same when male soldiers harass women, or when male and female soldiers are caught in flagrante delicto. Obviously the same should apply between homosexual/bisexual male soldiers.

I certainly don’t buy the argument that since there could and undoubtedly would be isolated incidents arising from homosexuals serving openly, therefore, we just won’t allow homosexuals to serve openly. It wasn’t a valid argument against integrating the military racially, it wasn’t a valid argument in letting women serve, and it isn’t valid in our case.

Bobby December 16, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Fine Dragon, then the status quo will continue for another 10 or 20 years and gays will continue getting discharged for violating DADT.

I’m sure plenty of gays would rather serve in a Gay Brigade than be discharged into a boring civilian life.

The army is not going to change unless Obama makes an executive order telling them to change. That’s how Truman integrated blacks into the military, yet Obama is not going to do that because he needs the black evangelical vote to win.

Jorge December 19, 2009 at 10:27 am

Besides, how do you think blacks where integrated in the military? From the days of George Washintong to WW2 there where segregated army units, it helped the blacks prove their worth as soldiers, eventually Harry Truman ended military segregation and the rest is history.

And now there are discharged gays who have proven their worth as soldiers. It’s time to get this country to wake up and smell the coffee.

Segregation would not not a positive step toward equality. It would be a compromise that gives gays nothing they don’t already have: the honor to serve in the military, and introduces a stigma they don’t already have: the black specter of legalized segregation. And I would add that the same costs apply to this country as a whole. We do not need the trouble, and this country, in which the draft has been revoked since the 1970s, is not so desperate for soldiers that it needs to segregate gays, either.

Jorge December 19, 2009 at 10:29 am

I’m sure plenty of gays would rather serve in a Gay Brigade than be discharged into a boring civilian life.

There certainly seems to be no shortage of gays who’d rather be discharged into boring civilian life than keep their traps shut.

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