Henderson: It Takes Only One Homosexual – Echoes of the Past in Current Policy Debates

Contributed by A.
Scott Henderson (FL ’82)

Henderson

Regardless
of what the philosopher George Santayana said, the past is often doomed to be
repeated whether we remember it or not.  This
is especially true for policy debates.  Recent
discussions concerning the military’s ban against openly gay, lesbian, and
bisexual service members underscore this point.

Enacted
in December of 1993, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy was a compromise
between the Clinton administration and Congress over the president’s desire to
allow gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces.  DADT prohibits military officials from ferreting
out or identifying closeted gay, lesbian, or bisexual personnel (“don’t ask”),
while enjoining the latter—under threat of discharge—from being open about
their sexual orientation (“don’t tell”). 
Data from a variety of sources, including the Servicemembers Legal
Defense Network, indicate that over 13,000 troops have been discharged under
DADT (see http://www.sldn.org/pages/about-dadt).

Efforts
to repeal DADT gained momentum with the election of President Barack Obama in
2008, who publicly opposed the policy.  In
early 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that the Pentagon would
conduct a study to assess the impact of ending DADT, and in May of that same
year the U.S. House of Representatives added a provision to the Defense
Authorization Act for fiscal year 2011 that would repeal DADT.

The
most vocal critics of DADT’s repeal have been the Veterans of Foreign Wars
(VFW) and the American Legion.  The VFW
believes that permitting gays and lesbians to openly serve would undermine the
“morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of
military capability” (see http://www.vfw.org/index.cfm?fa=caphill.levele&eid=4192).  Similarly, the American Legion has warned that
a repeal of DADT would endanger “national security” and “unit cohesion” (see http://clarencehill.legion.org/2010/05/the-american-legion-to-congress-dont-repeal-dont-ask-dont-tell/).  In short, both organizations stress the
corrosive effect that gay and lesbian soldiers would have on heterosexual ones.

Supporters
of DADT’s repeal are quick to note that these are some of the same arguments
that were used against integrating the armed services along racial and gender
lines.  But the déjà vu aspect of current
policy debates does not end there.  To
see why, we need to travel back to early-1950s America (President Harry Truman’s
second term).  In addition to the anti-communist
hysteria that swept the country during those years, there was a witch-hunt
aimed at federal employees who were homosexuals.  This “lavender scare”—to borrow the apt title
from historian David K. Johnson’s excellent book on the subject—foreshadowed
subsequent rationales used by policymakers and elected officials to deny gays
and lesbians equal rights.

“Employment
of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government” was perhaps the lavender
scare’s most telling and disturbing document. 
This report was issued in 1950 by an ad-hoc subcommittee of the United
States Senate that was chaired by North Carolina Democrat Clyde Hoey.  For Hoey and his fellow committee members,
employing homosexuals in the federal government was primarily a security
problem (homosexuals were especially vulnerable to blackmail, or so the
argument ran).

But
committee members also listed other reasons for barring homosexuals from
government employment.  Engaging in
homosexual acts reflected “emotional instability” and led to weakened “moral
fiber,” qualities that would poison the workplace.  Moreover, because homosexuals tended to
“gather other perverts” around them, their numbers would multiply as soon as a
few got their feet in the door.  Once
employed, they would “attempt to entice normal individuals,” especially “young
and impressionable people,” to participate in “perverted practices.”  As the report chillingly concluded, “One
homosexual can pollute a government office.” 
In 1953, Eisenhower heeded those admonitions by signing an executive
order disqualifying from federal service any individual who practiced “sexual
perversion.”

The
Chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, John W. Macy Jr., would echo the
contamination metaphor several years later.  In a 1966 State Department newsletter, Macy
argued that the employment ban should be maintained because of the
“apprehension” and “revulsion” that homosexuals would cause “other [heterosexual]
employees to feel,” as well as the umbrage they would generate if the public
had to interact with a “known or admitted sexual deviate.”  Ultimately, these disruptions would cause a
diminishment of “service efficiency.”

As
Gregory B. Lewis has shown in his insightful examination of the topic in the Public
Administration Review
, supporters of the ban emphasized how the mere
presence of homosexuals would trigger the prejudices of others.  However, instead of addressing the causes of intolerance,
they believed it was better, or at least easier, to simply eliminate its
presumed catalyst (which would be like making a playground off-limits to
children who wore glasses because their appearance sparked the anger of
bullies).  The ban enacted by Eisenhower’s
executive order would not be phased out until 1975.

This
brings us back full circle to current debates over repealing DADT.  If we replace “military service” with
“civilian service,” it is as if we have returned to the 1950s and 1960s.  Like that era, it is not the competence of
gays and lesbians that is currently being questioned, but an essential
characteristic—their sexual orientation. 
Because others (mainly heterosexual men) are deemed incapable of dealing
with this characteristic, military officials demand that it be expunged
whenever it appears—for instance, several dozen Arabic translators have been
discharged since 1998 for being gay.  To
put it another way, just as the Department of Homeland Security has a “red
level” to indicate a severe risk of terrorist attack, the military’s DADT policy
functions as an alarm against those who are a putative threat to our personal
and collective well-being.

Regrettably,
pleas for military or civilian “cohesion” are often based on simplistic and
misleading us-vs.-them dichotomies. 
Whether we shout “Wir sind ein
Volk!”
  (“We are one people!”) or
decorously affirm our support of “traditional family values,” we often do so at
the expense of denying others their humanity. 
We should keep this in mind as we continue to debate the future of DADT
and similar policies.

A. Scott Henderson
(FL ’82) is an Associate Professor of Education at Furman University.

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