With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the state will now recognize openly gay men and women as worthy to fight and die in its imperial wars.
On the one hand it is great that the U.S. is beginning to recognize openly gay citizens as fully human — and likely will continue to do so in the nearish future by conceding also the right to marry.
But to get married and become soldiers? How did these things become the focus of the fight for gay rights?
It wasn’t always like this. In the wake of Stonewall, the Gay Liberation Front issued a Manifesto that located the root of the oppression of gay people in the very form of the Patriarchal Family, “consisting in a man in charge, a slave as his wife, and their children on whom they force themselves as the ideal models.”
The Manifesto argued that “gay liberation” required more than mere reforms to such oppressive social institutions — it required nothing less than revolutionary social change, including a rejection of the very ideal of monogamy. And of course gays “openly serving in the military” was not even on the radar.
Part of the story of how we got here from there is that the rejection of the ideal of monogamy was made difficult by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and in the ’90s a conservative reaction emerged which fetishized “normality” against the earlier radicalism. A brief history of that debate can be read here, but I’ll quote Judith Butler’s succinct summary of the conflict in her essay “Competing Universalities“:
The lesbian and gay movement, which in some quarters has extended to include a broad range of sexual minorities, has faced a number of questions regarding its own assimilation to existing norms in recent years. Whereas some clamoured for inclusion in the US military, others sought to reformulate a critique of the military and question the value of being included there. Similarly, whereas… some activists have sought to extend the institution of marriage to non-heterosexual partners, others have sustained an active critique of the institution of marriage, questioning whether state recognition of monogamous partners will in the end delegitimate sexual freedom for a number of sexual minorities…. the enstatement of these questionable rights and obligations for some lesbians and gays establishes norms of legitimation that work to remarginalize others and foreclose possibilities of sexual freedom which have also been long-standing goals of the movement. The naturalization of the military-marriage goal for gay politics also marginalizes those for whom one or the other of these institutions is anathema, if not inimical. Indeed, those who oppose both institutions would find that the way in which they are represented by the ‘advance of democracy’ is a violation of their most central, political commitments.
So, what is really to be gained by the repeal of DADT?
First, it must be granted that because gays have been barred from a public enterprise on the basis of their sexual orientation, the repeal of DADT can be seen as an advance of “civil rights”. But there is a moral principle of equality at work here, and it stands in tension with more global considerations. The equality won by the repeal of DADT comes with a built in and nefarious limitation, since it is merely an equality among U.S. Americans in good standing — those outside of the imperial in-group can be (and in fact are) annihilated or disappeared with impunity. In this case an advance in “civil rights” is an affront to human rights universally.
Second, given the general hero-worship of those who sign up to be imperial pawns, gay soldiers stand to gain a satisfying increase in social respect and cultural acceptance from the repeal — but only at the cost of agreeing to follow orders from demonstrably untrustworthy imperial managers.
In these respects, fighting for the right to serve in the U.S. Military looks like a slavish response to Baby Bush’s Manichean Challenge — “We are with you! We are with you!”
In the end, the only thing gained is to be more completely recognized as a part of the imperial in-group, set against the global dispossessed. So winning the right to openly participate in the U.S. military is indeed a victory of sorts, but certainly not a victory for humanity generally speaking.
So much for what is gained. Now what is lost?
Self-described “queer” Medical Student Jess Guh asks this question in a thoughtful essay. Guh is saddened by the repeal of DADT, in part because she had seen the exclusion of queers from the U.S. military as an “insurance policy against any eventual draft”. In the event of a draft, she could have simply revealed herself as queer and thereby escaped conscription.
In that sense, the repeal of DADT is the loss of an asset for draft dodgers.
But, she continues, it is also the loss of a “huge opportunity to make more significant gains.”
Like the teen-aged Vietnam War draftees who fought for the right to vote, gay rights activists could have used willingness to participate in the U.S. military as a concession in a negotiation for other rights they lacked:
…equal marriage rights, rights to have a family through adoption, and discrimination protection (the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Law still doesn’t bar firing or harassment over the issue of sexual orientation). Partners of queer military personnel won’t even be eligible for health benefits, because that benefit requires a marriage certificate.”
Estimating the number of “homosexuals” in the U.S. is a complex project, but it is fair to say that a significant portion of the population fell under the category prohibited from participating openly in the armed forces. Since “a substantial portion of current and future military personnel” are “queer”, Guh asks:
…what would have happened if every queer soldier and ally refused to work, fight? What if queer folk just refused to enlist? From infantry to engineering to culinary services, all fronts of the American military would have been crippled. Would we have been able to demand equality in more controversial areas in addition to the simply right to serve?
This would have been negotiating from a position of power.
And actually, such a move remains a possibility. It is also possible (for everyone) to make participation in the military contingent on a just and legal cause — conscientious objectors can come in any flavor. But as far as I know, the DADT debate was abstracted from any question about the justice or legality of the U.S. military project.
And really, from an anti-imperialist perspective, it is strange to speak of the “right” to “serve” in the military. Why is it considered a “right” to “serve” an aggressive war machine? And is this right universal and human? If so, then what of the universal human rights of those on the receiving end of this machine?
Some sources for the collage: The gay pride revelers come from an amusing satire from the Onion; the Navy officer is retired Reserve Commander Zoe Dunning (Ret.) and her partner; the central body in black and white is from genderqueer, a blog featuring “images of gender-bending, trans and queer people of all sorts, meant to empower and celebrate the beauty within all gender expressions.”; Dan Choi is a prominent activist who worked to challenge DADT.
The portrait of a gay soldier hiding his identity is by Jeff Sheng, from a beautiful series I first encountered at the Manifest Equality artshow in L.A.