Could openly gay service members eventually fight in Iraq?
July 03 2004 12:00 AM ET
If the United States were to reenact the draft for the first time since the Vietnam War--in order to ease the strain on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan--openly gay men and lesbians would likely be required to serve whether they wanted to or not, military experts tell Advocate.com.
The Defense Department is certainly feeling the burden of fighting two wars. This week it reassigned 5,700 additional soldiers to National Guard and Reserve units to be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. And lawmakers, such as Republican senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, continue to call for the draft to be reinstated. New York Democratic representative Charles Rangel argues that it would produce a more demographically balanced force and introduced a bill last year that would require mandatory service for all draft-age American men and women. South Carolina Democratic senator Ernest Hollings has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
A.J. Rogue, national president of American Veterans for Equal Rights, agrees. "The recalling of reservists and retirees is the first step in reinstating the draft. What makes it easy is the fact that young males and females are now required to register," he says. "This makes it really easy to get the draft going again--it's just a simple matter of notifying everyone registered."
If those efforts are successful, the Defense Department would have to determine how to mesh "don't ask, don't tell" with the draft for the first time in its history. Most likely, in 2004 gay men and lesbians would be bound for boot camp.
"If there's a draft and 'don't ask, don't tell' is left intact, that leaves an escape route for straights who want to claim to be gay and then escape military service," says Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military. "It would be a logistical nightmare to have 'don't ask, don't tell' and the draft together."
Defense Department spokesman Jim Turner disagrees. He told Advocate.com in a written statement that "the Department of Defense policy on homosexual conduct in the military implements a federal law enacted in 1993 following extensive hearings and debate. The law would need to be changed to affect the department's policy. The Defense Department position that at this time there is no need for a draft."
Under "don't ask, don't tell," gay and lesbian service members who disclose their sexuality by either word or deed are discharged. Since 1994, more than 10,000 service members have been forced out of the military due to the policy. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which monitors the dismissals and provides legal advice to targeted personnel, 3,633 service members working in the same specialties as the troops involved in this week's call-up were discharged between 1998 and 2001 alone. If those discharges hadn't happened, the call-up would not have been necessary, adds SLDN spokesman Steve Ralls: "Those are people who were especially well-trained, and then the military turns around and fires them, even when they know there is a dire need for them."
Meanwhile, the situation for closeted gays in the military remains dangerous. "Lesbian and gay service members continue to report daily incidents of harassment, death threats, and intimidation," Ralls says, noting how frightening military service can be for gays and lesbians--not just on the battlefield. "A service member recently reported to us that he found a live grenade taped to his barracks door." A recent Defense Department survey asked 72,000 troops if they had heard antigay statements or remarks in the past year, and 80% said yes. Thirty-seven percent said they had witnessed or experienced targeted incidents of antigay harassment. and 9% said they had witnessed or experienced antigay physical assaults. Pentagon officials reported Monday that they are not planning to take any additional steps to curb antigay harassment.
Jacob Levich, founding member of People Against the Draft, based in in New York City, says a draft is closer to reality than some might think--no matter what the Department of Defense says. "The U.S. military is stretched far too thin to fulfill its current commitments, let alone new ones that will inevitably arise under either a Kerry or Bush administration," he says. "Reinstatement of the draft is a serious, and perhaps necessary, option for the U.S. so long as we remain in Iraq and are committed to a militarized, expansionist foreign policy--something both major-party candidates enthusiastically endorse. Our group thinks the GLBT community should demand that they be granted the full benefits of U.S. citizenship, including the rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual spouses, before they even consider putting their lives on the line for a government that oppresses them."
Even if gays and lesbians were exempt from serving because of their sexual orientation, they would have problems in going back to their lives after a draft, says Ralls. "Once a service member is discharged, his or her paperwork clearly indicates the reason the service member left service. Many employers will ask to see a former service member's military paperwork and will know that he or she was discharged based on sexual orientation," he says. "Evading the draft by lying about one's sexual orientation could be a major setback to getting a job after being discharged from the service."