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Arkell's Ark: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

"Gay men and women in the US and possibly other countries will still be harassed and discriminated against; old hatreds, fear and bigotry take a long time to breathe their last,'' writes Ian Arkell.

It was interesting to read through some of the debate that occurred in the lead up to the repeal of the Donít Ask, Donít Tell policy, introduced by the Clinton administration in 1993. This policy basically allowed gay men and women to serve in the US military so long as they kept their sexual orientation to themselves. Itís been an 18 year battle to get rid of this discriminatory legislation and serving gay men and women have every right to celebrate.

Although I suspect there are still quite a few skirmishes ahead, even if the battle has, in principle, been won. If you look at most of the objections that were raised they seem to follow the same homophobic argument, which no amount of legislation will ever repeal. Gay men and women in the US and possibly other countries will still be harassed and discriminated against; old hatreds, fear and bigotry take a long time to breathe their last.

Itís hard to obtain specific figures regarding gay men and women in the US military as it varies between service and location. I suspect it would be lower than the wider civilian population simply because some gay people may have more concerns regarding their treatment in the military machine and be more reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation.

It would be disconcerting enough if your fellow soldiers were openly homophobic or abusive but a comment some time ago by General John Sheehan, a retired four star Marine Corps general, makes you wonder how far up the chain of command that homophobia extends. He claimed, amongst other things, that to allow openly gay men and women to serve would see a surge in HIV rates. He also voiced an opinion that the policy of the Dutch military to allow gays to serve was one of the reasons for the Srebrenica genocide.

The Generalís inference appears to be that the Dutch peacekeeping force lacked sufficient resolve to act and protect civilians due to the presence of gays within the peacekeeperís ranks. This was not just fuzzy reasoning but simple homophobia. Perhaps the general was having a bad day.

In Australia weíve been a bit quicker off the mark than our American cousins in allowing gay and lesbians to serve openly in the Australian Defence Forces. The ban prohibiting gays in the ADF was overturned in 1992 and subsequent investigations and a white paper have indicated that early fears expressed by senior ADF officers have not been realised. The white paper also contained an unattributed comment that the whole thing was, Ďvery much a non-issueí.

Now once again thatís not to say there wonít be isolated harassment of serving gays in the military; probably to the same extent that you have in civilian life. Such changes in the US, here and other countries are more a question of cultural maturity than just simple legislation. But the legislation incorporates penalties for such harassment and affords certain rights as well as some humanity for young men and women who elect to serve their country and put their lives at risk. As one officer said, the next step is to look at related issues such as spousal benefits and the enforcement of anti-discriminatory legislation regarding gay members of the military. Itís another small but significant step towards equality.

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