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I would like to take a moment this Memorial Day weekend to explain why I, a self-described leftist, radical queer, and pacifist, who is actively opposed to the current tangle o' wars the U.S. is embroiled in and to war in general, support the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy toward LGBTQ folk in the U.S. military.

A lot of radical queers, in and out of my acquaintance, are really critical of mainstream gay rights organizations' decision to make the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell a movement priority. They argue that the "freedom" to serve as an openly LGBTQ person in the military is, in fact, the freedom to participate in a violent, unnecessary, racist, generally fucked up institution that serves only the interests of the wealthy corporation CEOs who stand to gain financially from war. Many argue, furthermore, that prioritizing the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell denotes a woeful lack of attention to intersectional politics in the mainstream LGBTQ (or, well, let's not kid ourselves-- the mainstream gay) rights movement. Basically, the argument is that putting so much stock in allowing lesbian and gay people to serve openly in the U.S. military amounts to prioritizing the "rights" of gay Americans at the expense of people in less wealthy countries, and that human rights gained by one group at the expense of others are not, in fact, rights at all.

And generally, I agree with these viewpoints. I am highly skeptical of mainstream, liberal and moderate gay rights activists who couch the debate over Don't Ask, Don't Tell in terms of simple patriotism, in terms of the right to "serve one's country openly." I think that anyone who can argue after the last eight years (hell, after the last fifty years) that taking part in the U.S. military constitues "freedom" or "service" is, at best, naive; and at worst, full of shit. I sure as hell agree that mainstream gay rights activists and organizations fail, for the most part, at intersectional politics, and that the framing of the policy (but, as I will explain later, not the attempt at repealing the policy itself) is reflective of that failure. But I'm going to argue, hopefully convincingly, that it is precisely in the name of intersectional politics that the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy needs to be repealed.

I think that sometimes, when white leftists from relatively affluent backgrounds (such as myself, for example; and this may be true of other leftists as well, but I notice this phenomenon mostly in leftists that share those particular characteristics with me) make attempts at intersectional politics, we often achieve such connections at the levels of identity and language, but not necessarily in the realm of the practical and the everyday. I think this is definitely true in the case of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Since the years of the (younger) Bush administration, American leftists have consistently responded to conservative allegations that liberal and leftist people fail to "support our troops" by protesting the war in Iraq, by arguing that it is possible to support people in the armed forces without supporting the wars they have been called upon to fight. In fact, we argue, it may be necessary to do so, or more respectful to "our troops" not to send them to fight and die in a senseless war. In making this argument, leftists often note that positions in the military are not always freely chosen by people with an infinite number of options. On the contrary, class and its limitations often play a role in a person's decision to join the military. Often, joining the armed forces is the only way for a person with low income to have a chance at a college education-- and hopefully, by extension, a civilian job with a decent living wage. If a college education is not an option for you-- and I could write a whole novel about the ways in which the U.S. educational system is skewed to give white, middle- and upper class kids a better crack at a decent college prep education-- then a career in the armed forces may seem, particularly in a world where union labor jobs are scarce and getting scarcer, like your only chance at a stable, well-paying career. There are many, complex reasons why a person might choose to enlist in the military, and not all of them are ideological, or even remotely patriotic.

As radical queers, we know this. We've probably all parroted this opinion, even, a time or twelve. But it seems to me that it frequently escapes us-- particularly those of us who are white and/or from an economically affluent background-- that some of the people who will make that decision for economic reasons will inevitably be queer. The argument that the "freedom" to participate in the military as an openly LGBTQ person is, because of the violent, racist, and often ideologically spurious nature of the wars the U.S. wages, not freedom at all, seems to me to imply that all of the queer people who end up in the armed forces do so out of a patriotic desire to "serve" their country in war. But if this is not true of the population in general, as we have argued above, then it cannot possibly be true of queer people, either. To assume that it does is to marginalize, even render invisible, working class and poor people in queer communities. Keep in mind, as well, that many of the people who enlist in the armed forces may do so at as young as 18 years of age, and consequently, may not realize they are queer until after they have enlisted. Do those people not deserve the chance to explore their identities, as other young people do, simply because they are ensconced in an institution like the armed forces, rather than a more "proper" (read: affluent) institution, such as college?

I think part of the problem here is the way that mainstream gay rights organizations have framed the issue of LGBTQ people in the military-- and the ways in which radical queers have allowed that frame to stand, unquestioningly understanding it as the framework through which we view the issue of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That framework, as I have already mentioned several times, largely rests on the twin "ideals" of assimilationism and patriotism. It goes kinda like this: LGBTQ (well, really, gay) Americans are just as American and patriotic as straight ones; they love their country as much as straight people do, and want to serve their nation as ardently as straight people do. Gay people are already "giving their lives for their country" as we speak, and we should honor their "sacrifice" by allowing them to serve openly. But if you look at the history of the debate over LGBTQ people in the U.S. military, you learn that this was not the primary reason that gay rights activists chose to fight the ban on gays in the military, nor was it initially the way in which those activists framed the debate.

My analysis from here on out owes a lot to the book Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid, which is a fucking awesome book that anyone in the U.S. who cares about queer rights should buy immediately. Virtual Equality was written in 1996, but I found it an incredibly timely book when I read it in 2003, and I bet it's an even more crucial read now in 2009, at the beginning of the Obama administration. Vaid was the Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force at the beginning of the Clinton administration, and she talks a lot about the dangers of complacency when a president who explicitly mentioned queer issues during his candidacy is elected to the presidency. In the case of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, she largely blames this complacency on LGBTQ activists' failure to outright end the ban on queers in the military. Seriously, y'all, run, don't walk, to the bookstore and get this book. It's an incredibly incisive book from someone who's worked in both mainstream and radical queer activism (yes, it's possible to do both at the same time), and anyone who can coherently combine the views of Eve Sedgwick and Andrew Sullivan gets serious respect and awe from me.

Anyway. The attempt in the early '90s to end the ban on gays in the U.S. military, and the eventual adoption of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, did not stem from a simple patriotic desire to allow all queer folk to "serve their country" openly. It actually stemmed from a very specific series of events that happened on Parris Island, a Marine base, during the late '80s and early '90s. At the time, Parris Island was the site of serious sexual harassment and a major witch hunt against women officers of all sexual orientations. In the days of the outright ban on lesbians and gay men in the military, lesbian-baiting was an easy and relatively fool-proof way for men in the armed forces to keep women "in line." That is, telling, or threatening to tell, a woman's commanding officer that she was a lesbian was an effective way to keep women from reporting sexual harassment, to "punish" women who achieved a rank and/or level of power that male soldiers found threatening, and to generally maintain a male-dominated and misogynist environment on bases such as Parris Island. It did not actually matter whether or not the woman in question actually was a lesbian: in that environment, even the hint of a rumor was enough to ruin a woman's military career; and besides, it's actually basically impossible for a person to prove that they are not gay, as our current understanding of sexual orientation dictates that gayness is determined by personal inclination and not by the sex acts in which one participates. In any event, early attempts at ending the ban on gays in the military were aimed primarily at ending sexual harassment and the practice of lesbian-baiting in the armed forces-- in other words, feminists were trying to do for the armed forces what they were also doing in civilian work places. Most of the activists in the early movement to end the ban on gays in the military considered themselves radical feminists.

As the Clinton years began, mainstream gay rights activists took up radical feminists' call of ending the ban on gays in the military and, in the process, altered the movement's focus in ways that seriously damaged its viability. Dealing with both a nominally sympathetic president (but in reality, one that was more interested in pandering than in action) and a conservative Congress, they chose to shift the focus of the movement away from the problem of lesbian-baiting to a message of patriotism. This shift, as we know and see today, alienated queers, particularly left-leaning middle- and upper class ones, who understandably critiqued the connections between patriotism, service, and participation in the military-industrial complex. To these people, as we have also seen, the working class and poor queers' stake in this issue was all but invisible. The shift away from a gender-specific analysis of lesbian-baiting in the military, as is often the case, also meant that men, not women, became the focus of the debate. Rather than discussing the very real issue of lesbian-baiting, witch hunts, and sexual harassment in the U.S. armed forces that propelled the movement in the first place, discussion of the matter devolved into a series of homophobic what-ifs: what if a gay man sees his fellow soldiers in the shower, what if the presence of a gay male soldier endangers missions by making platonic male camaraderie impossible, and so on. The shift away from the gender- and class-specific practical consequences of the ban, to a patriotic emphasis that erased those dimensions (and, therefore, made the most privileged members of the LGBTQ community most visible), actually sabotaged gay activists' attempts to end the ban, and enabled the adoption of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

But the practical consequences of such a policy remain today, and it is because of those consequences, and not out of a misguided appeal to assimilation and patriotism, that I support the end of the ban. Granted, I think that there are other, internal improvements that could be made to the country that might benefit queers of all classes more than allowing us to serve openly in the military will. Investing more money-- say, some of the trillions of dollars we currently invest in our military-- on repairing damaged public schools, hiring more teachers, and generally overhauling the public school system so that it's a more equal playing field, and fewer working class kids feel like military service is their only option, might be a better way to combat the problem. But even if that did happen, it would take a long damned time, and what are the people suffering under current military policy supposed to do in the meantime? Radical, idealistic solutions are all well and good, but sometimes we need smaller-ranging pragmatic solutions to hold people over in the meantime, y'know, until the revolution happens and utopia is at hand. And repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell is one such pragmatic solution.

Date: 2009-05-25 04:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hm. I'm also in favor of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, although I haven't thought it through in as much detail as you. Personally, the "patriotism" argument doesn't wash for me, either. But for some people, it might -- and that's okay with me too. One's position on the military is, to me, an inherently political position, and I can respect arguments from a variety of positions. I personally agree that it's been a wildly fucked up institution in most ways for most of the last 50 years; at the same time, I'm personally quite glad that we had a military in WWII, and I'm even glad that we had a military to invade Afghanistan -- however much I may criticize the subsequent conduct of that war, I think it's one that had to be fought. I'm entirely happy to have a respectful arguments with anyone who disagrees with me, either way, on any and all of the above points.

My position on gay rights, however, is much more fundamental than this. I simply despise anti-gay discrimination, and I have never seen an opposing viewpoint that is not comprehensively fucking reprehensible. Because of that, it's not something that I'm willing to throw into a larger package of other political viewpoints, be it feminism, pacifism, or even liberalism as a whole. In this sense, it practically precedes politics, for me. If gay people choose to be fiscally conservative war-mongers who listen to bad country music and can't color-coordinate to save their lives -- well, then they should be able to be out about it, and not discriminated against. Period. Any arguments about war, class, aesthetics, or anything else can be debated secondarily and on their own merits.

This is an ongoing issue for me: in the past decade, I've increasingly withdrawn from general left-wing advocacy, as I see it having a counter-productive totalizing streak. While I like to think that my own political positions form a fairly cohesive and holistic package, I'm deeply suspicious of aiming for holism en masse: that way lies either brainwashed conformity, or, more often, zealous obscurity. This issue became really clarified for me around the run-up to Iraq war (which I of COMPLETELY opposed), in which the protests became a sort of generalized miasma of left-wing positions. You were welcome at the protests provided that you were wearing your anti-establishment, universally pacifist, anti-capitalist, anti-globalization, environmentalist, feminist, pro-gay, pro-body modification, etc. etc. etc. credentials on your sleeve. At one of the protests, I recall seeing a solitary old white dude in a suit -- clearly either a banker, or impeccably costumed as such; in any case, his allegiance to all the other assorted causes was not made obvious -- carrying an "I oppose this war" sign. When I saw the frosty reception that he was given, I knew that our cause was lost. Bringing all of those issues under a single roof had not broadened our reach; it had winnowed us down to the common denominator. We had made ourselves as marginal as possible, and as a consequence, we failed to stop the war.

I took that as a lesson in pragmatism, and it's been my guiding principle ever since. If something is *really* important to me, I rigorously resist burdening it with any more philosophy than is absolutely necessary. I focus on what I want to see happen -- and my own underlying philosophy for wanting that -- and am happy to accept help from allies, regardless of what their underlying philosophies might be. I don't have a problem with part-time bedfellows. If my aim is to stop a war, and a racist homophobe wants to help me stop it, then that's okay with me. If a Hummer-driving warmonger wants to help end discrimination, then that's okay with me too. If they're under the impression that it's "patriotic" or something, then, you know, what *ever* -- people think all sorts of funny things. It's the results that matter.

Perhaps, just as the separation of religion and state is a very good idea (however enthusiastic I am about both spirituality and politics), some sort of separation between philosophy and activism --not within one's own person, of course, but within a group -- might also be worthwhile, for similar reasons? It sounds wildly naive when I put it that way... but still...?

Date: 2009-05-27 05:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
At the time, Parris Island was the site of serious sexual harassment and a major witch hunt against women officers of all sexual orientations.

I didn't know this.


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