Asking, Telling

The Pentagon claims gays who serve openly undermine the force, but a local researcher's evidence says otherwise. Could his work help President Bush make life better for gay soldiers than it ever was under Clinton?

Aaron Belkin has never held a gun, let alone fired one. The political science instructor has no military experience, but not because he is an openly gay man. Even if he were allowed to join the Army or were drafted, he wouldn't go. He's a pacifist. Yet Belkin, who lives in San Francisco and teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara, believes a gay person who wants to serve his country in the armed forces should be able to do so.

That's why Belkin runs the only academic group geared toward proving that gays can serve openly in a military without jeopardizing the force's effectiveness -- proving that the Pentagon's current policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is unnecessary and based on unfounded fear. So far, his Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military has compiled reports from armed forces in Great Britain, Israel, Australia, and Canada, where lifts of gay bans have not undermined unit cohesion. Belkin hopes his information will help stop the harming of gay soldiers under what he calls a destructive policy -- and, in the long run, help push the United States to scrap "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and end its ban altogether, as 23 allies already have done.

It might be expected that Belkin's research would have more impact if Al Gore were president instead of George W. Bush. It was a Democratic president, after all, who first tried to let gays serve openly in the United States military. But Bill Clinton's resulting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise has been an abysmal failure and a policy that has, by his own admission, "continued to have a lot of abuse." In theory, gays should be allowed to serve as long as they remain closeted. But the policy was never fully enforced by the Pentagon to reflect its original title -- "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue, Don't Harass" -- despite Clinton's role as commander in chief. The zealous and intentional ferreting out of gays that the compromise was supposed to halt not only continued, but intensified: There were 70 percent more discharges for homosexuality under the new policy than when the original ban was in effect. And that's not to mention countless examples of harassment and assaults of gay soldiers (and those perceived to be gay) -- and even murder.

A Gore election would not necessarily have meant better news for gays in the military. In fact, it is possible that Bush can now do more for them than Gore ever could have. While Gore campaigned against any ban for gays, he would have had a hard time as president getting a Republican Congress to overturn what had become law. But candidate Bush declared, "I'm a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell' man." Bush's comment was a departure from the typical Republican stance: He was not advocating a return to all-out exclusion. As a supporter of the compromise, President Bush now has the opportunity to make the policy work better. A properly enforced "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" could at the very least create a safer environment for gays in the military. And that would be a welcome first step in Belkin's ultimate goal of ending the ban completely. It may be that a gay soldier could have a better life under a Bush administration than he ever did with Clinton in command.

Belkin compares Bush's potential effect to what he calls the "Nixon in China" phenomenon. Only a hard-line anti-communist like Richard Nixon could have had enough credibility with the American public to reach out to the Chinese as he did so historically in 1972. Likewise, only a president with unwavering military support could successfully suggest or enforce an unpopular policy. Despite Gore's service in Vietnam, Bush and the Republicans are generally considered more pro-military. And now that some of the most respected military leaders from Bush's father's presidency -- namely, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell -- are back in power, Bush should have even more credibility within the forces.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been so woefully implemented in part because Clinton lacked the respect of military officers he needed in order to demand that it be carried out properly. How Bush expects "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to be executed may make all the difference in a gay soldier's life. One hint is Bush's choice for secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld: Though he has said little on the record regarding gays in the military, Rumsfeld did criticize the Clinton-era secretary who mused that it would be tough to get the compromise to work with so many generals against it. Rumsfeld, who led the Defense Department once before (during the Ford administration), told Les Aspin in 1993 that military chiefs "will do precisely what they are told."


Aaron Belkin, a Democrat who voted for Gore, hopes that Bush's pick of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense was no accident. For a while, it looked like former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats was the front-runner for the job. Bush's right-wing supporters -- a powerful influence and key voter base -- wanted Coats. The ultra-conservative senator had railed against what he called the "feminization" of the military, citing gays as one part of the problem (women being the other). Belkin worried that not only would the spirit and letter of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" be ignored under Coats' leadership, but also that Coats would push for its reversal and a return to the original ban.

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