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Hostility toward
gays still rampant in the military

Hostility toward
gays still rampant in the military


Gays in the U.S. military face continuing hostility on some bases and ships where commanders fail to prohibit harassment more than a decade after the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was enacted.

Gays in the U.S. military face continuing hostility on some bases and ships where commanders fail to prohibit harassment more than a decade after "don't ask, don't tell" was enacted, although seeds of greater tolerance may be taking root, a Reuters investigation reveals. While some leaders have created environments in which harassment is not tolerated, others have not, and the evidence, according to witnesses, is both verbal and visual.

On the Navy's USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, for example, antigay statements and jokes are on display and have been incorporated into a video about the F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft, recently shown to reporters on the carrier. Pilots on the Roosevelt sported T-shirts, also shown to reporters including this Reuters correspondent, that said, "I'm a Tomcat guy and you're a homo." The commander of the fighter squadron, in fact, wore the shirt.

"The line between that and threats and violence can be quite thin," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Openly gay people are prohibited from serving in the U.S. military under a 1993 policy known as "don't ask, don't tell." The military can't ask if a service member is gay, but those who say they are gay are discharged. The U.S. military argues that barring gays from the military is critical to maintaining a unit's "cohesion," the trust among service members crucial to combat effectiveness.

Harassment of gays, however, is prohibited. The Pentagon, in a 2000 memo to the armed services and commanders, said "mistreatment, harassment, and inappropriate comments or gestures" based on sexual orientation were not acceptable. That followed a report from the Defense Department's inspector general that found that 80% of service members surveyed had heard antigay comments and 37% had witnessed harassment against people thought to be homosexual.

The antigay displays aboard the Roosevelt should be seen as harassment, said Steve Ralls, communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group working to see "don't ask, don't tell" repealed. "That type of behavior has real consequences," Ralls said, pointing to the antigay graffiti allowed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky before the 1999 murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell, thought to be a gay soldier.

In response to questions from Reuters, Navy rear admiral Denby Starling, commander of the Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, said the antigay messages witnessed on the Roosevelt are "contrary to Navy policy and core values and have no place within Naval Aviation or the Navy."

"Immediately upon notification of your observations, Naval Aviation leadership engaged to take corrective action," he said via e-mail. "Steps have been taken to ensure that the offending messages have been removed. Squadron and air wing leadership have been counseled regarding the inappropriate tone set by such messages and poor judgment demonstrated in allowing their display." (Reuters)

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