Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Bring New Faces to the DADT debate

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I had the opportunity to attend a special presentation of the Brave New Foundation's latest installation of the In Their Boots series, the documentary short Silent Partners (Thursday, July 16, 2009, Backstage Theater at Sony Pictures, LA). The screening featured a discussion with Dan Choi, a West Point-trained former infantry officer and Julianne Sohn, a former marine, each discharged under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, as well as Jake Diliberto, a self-described evangelical straight ally and Brian Baker, an Episcopal minister, military veteran, and West Point graduate.

The film and the panel together highlight significant recent shifts in the "face of DADT." The film documentary brings into focus the toll the policy takes on the civilian (and one military) partner of gay and lesbian service members, a viewpoint that has until now received little attention. The film, which follows the stories of 3 same-sex partners of active duty servicemembers is a poignant reminder of the toll of military conflict abroad on family members at home-regardless of sexual orientation. The film also highlights the added burdens and everyday emotional and financial injury the policy produces on same-sex couples, when partners cannot be listed as next of kin or notified of injury, and when the risks of everyday communications include discharge and loss of benefits. Choi reminded the audience that this was the case in the recent murder of Seaman Provost, whose boyfriend would not have been notified of his death, were it not for the press.

The post-screening panel foregrounded the voices and experiences of two Korean-Americans who served and were discharged under the policy, marking a sea-change in how advocacy groups are approaching the debate by drawing attention to the impact of the policy on communities of color, an aspect the film, which is limited to 3 stories, did not address. Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate trained as an Arabic linguist in the military, who was discharged after coming out on "The Rachel Maddow Show," gripped the audience when he opened the evening with a recitation of Lebanese-born poet Khalil Gibran's "Sand and Foam" (1926) in Arabic, then translating from the famous poem declaring, "You are free as you exist, but when you love you are a slave." These words and his voice were a powerful reminder of the complexity of war and love, of state power and the family, of the military's policy and the constitutional rights to free speech and private autonomy. Choi, a founder of "Knights Out," the West Point LGBT Alumni organization, shared his own experience that contrary to the military's new campaign for Suicide Prevention "No Soldier Stands Alone," he and other soldiers serving under the policy do stand alone, since they cannot talk openly even to chaplains, doctors, or fellow soldiers without risk of discharge. (See Professor Diane H. Mazur's recent post "New Training Leaves Gay Soldiers Behind.") In everyday conversations, he related, he had to call a boyfriend "Martha."

Julianne Sohn, a Los Angeles Police Department officer served as a marine and was also discharged under the policy. She explained how different it is to serve the LAPD, which recruits in the LGBT community and marches in community Pride events. She was direct in telling the audience that the policy makes her "pissed off." She said the military knows the significant numbers of LGB people serving and the reality of the policy's impact. She explained how her partner had to "go back in the closet" when she was deployed, a story that the documentary demonstrates is not uncommon for civilian partners. She had the audience laughing at the everyday absurdities the policy produces when she quipped about her partner, "I'll call her Francesca…because that's her name."

One audience member asked the panelists to discuss the relationship of the policy to histories of racial discrimination in the military. This concluded the evening on a thoughtful note, with reminders about the discharge of Japanese-American servicemembers during World War II and Japanese internment, the Tuskegee Airman, and the long struggle for racial desegregation in the military, which was finally ordered by Truman.

Throughout the 1990s, the faces of DADT that the public saw most often-- images that stood in for the 14,000+ people discharged under DADT--were predominantly images of white men. These images, and the political rhetoric of activists in 1993 when the policy was instituted, reinscribe whiteness as the norm of gay and lesbian identity and politics. White gay men's experiences of discrimination were presented as the paradigmatic experiences, the ones that fully articulated what it means to be a gay or lesbian person in the military. However, the military as an institution has a disproportionate representation of poor people and people of color serving in the armed services (see my previous blog posts). Couple this with the fact that Pentagon data also show that women are discharged under DADT at higher rates and out of proportion to their numbers in the military, and the result is that "the face of DADT" should also be a woman of color.

It's been a long time coming to put a new face on the "don't ask, don't tell" debate. We didn't see that happen in a significant way, until Showtime's cable drama L-Word introduced the character of Tasha Williams (Rose Rollins) in Season 4 (2007), a Military Police officer in the Army National Guard, an African American, and a lesbian. Initially, Tasha is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of Iraq combat experiences while getting ready to be re-deployed. But, by the end of Season 5, Tasha is facing charges of misconduct and possible discharge. The L-Word's introduction of Tasha into the repertoire of images as the "face of DADT" significantly changed how the policy was represented in the media, whether fictionally on television, or in the portfolio of images available on the news and in advocacy campaigns. It also began the work of talking about the impact of the war and the policy on the civilian partners of gay servicemembers. Silent Partners continues that work by bringing us the real stories of those civilian partners, but the work of fully examining the policy's impact on families of color remains to be done. Julianne Sohn and Dan Choi are adding an important dimension to the public conversation about the impact of the policy.

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

Comments

Partners of GLBT Servicemembers

One point not mentioned in this article is the toll that silence takes on the lives of couples who both serve in the military. I served for five years in the 80's, before DADT, mostly overseas. Regardless of what was going on personally, nothing could be said to anyone for fear that the relationship would be discovered - and then we both could lose our careers (and at that time the fear of coming up on military criminal charges was still very real).

This feeling of isolation and the fear of being discovered were the reasons I left the military in 1989, even though I longed to make the military a career. Now in 2009 my straight counterparts are just retiring from their careers, while nothing has changed for GLBT servicemembers who want to continue to serve. The military has truly lost some of their best and brightest to this short sighted policy.

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