“Historic Moves,” “Seismic Shifts,” and the Danger of a Policy that Won’t Come Dislodged.


Still On My Mind: Seaman August Provost, future architectural engineer

On June 30, 2009, Seaman August Provost III, 29 years old, was found brutally murdered on base, on duty, and while standing guard at Camp Pendleton, likely by a fellow servicemember. Provost's body was burned after he was shot to death. The Navy's continued claim that there is "no evidence or information that suggests this is a hate crime" belies the question that the 'don't ask, don't tell policy" itself makes it impossible to officially gather such evidence. (See Dr. Frank's previous blog post). Statements by the Navy foremost ignore reports by family members that Provost had complained to them about a person who was harassing him because he was gay. Of course, for Provost, a gay man serving in the military, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy would have put him in an untenable position, where he would be penalized for taking the necessary steps to protect himself from harassment and discrimination. Family members further noted that the policy played a part in Provost's poor treatment in the Navy. As his niece, Keonna Johnson-Jones, explains, "Because of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' he couldn't say anything," …"He couldn't go to his superiors."

In an historic move, the National Black Justice Coalition [NBJC], a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and the only nationwide Black gay civil rights organization, reached out to Black Leadership Forum member organizations which include the NAACP, Congressional Black Caucus, National Urban League, National Council of Negro Women, 100 Black Men, Inc., and several others to join forces to stand for equality and against discrimination and hatred toward all African-Americans. Together with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, they have called for an investigation into the death of U.S. Sailor August Provost (See article).

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell now believes the "don't ask, don't tell" policy should be reviewed, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked military lawyers to look at ways to make the law more "flexible." These are called "historic moves" and "seismic shifts," even as the policy remains unchanged and apparently unmoveable.

President Barack Obama favors overturning the policy, and Obama made significant statements at the June 29th LGBT Stonewall reception, most notably acknowledging that "It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago." Jason W. Bartlett, Deputy Director, NBJC, notes that Obama in this moment foregrounded the complexity of the intersection of sexuality and race. As I have discussed in previous posts, that complexity is also made visible in Pentagon data which show that African American women are discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" at three times the rate that they serve in the military. And as Seaman August Provost's death makes apparent, discharges aren't the only negative impact of the policy, a policy that also impacts people of color disproportionately - as their numbers are overrepresented in the military.

The NBJC linked the Navy's inaction to what they call "the continuing pattern of incidents across the country -hate crimes, police misconduct, and racial intimidation - that are all-too-often tolerated and ignored by law enforcement officials and courts." In thinking about the ways that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by policies such as "don't ask, don't tell" and by structural inequality and injustice, I was struck by another fact: Provost had completed three years of college before joining the Navy in March 2008 to help finance his education, and was studying to become an architectural engineer.

This image of a dream deferred will be in my mind as the State of California and the University of California decide this week how to address the current budget crisis, contemplating cuts in enrollment and hikes in tuition, or even the closure of traditionally minority-serving campuses, in addition to faculty and staff furloughs. I hope our conversations address the broader social impacts that education cuts will have the health, well-being, and opportunities available to our nation's young people.

Jeanne Scheper is Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at UC, Irvine and former Research Director of the Palm Center


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