By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
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By Erin Sherbert
During the presidential campaign, candidate George W. Bush announced he was a ""Don't Ask, Don't Tell' man," supporting the controversial policy of how to deal with gays in the military. Bush's assertion was a departure from the traditional Republican stance that gays should be banned outright. And some political observers theorized that a gay soldier just might have a better life in the military under a Bush administration than he ever did with President Clinton in command. Despite the Clinton-engineered compromise to let closeted gays serve, the policy made the victimization of gay soldiers worse than ever. Clinton simply lacked the respect to enforce the full language of the law -- "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue, Don't Harass." But a darling of the military like Bush, some believed, might have a better shot at implementing an unpopular policy -- especially after bringing back to power all the admired Gulf War veterans of his father's administration (see "Asking, Telling," Jan. 31).
So just seven months into his presidency, Bush has accomplished something Clinton was unable to pull off in eight years: the first-ever U.S. Army training guide on homosexual conduct policy.
Now, whenever a soldier has a question about the complex regulations on what exactly it means to be gay in the military, all he has to do is turn to his official Army ... comic book.
That's right, comic book. The full-color, 30-page booklet -- titled Dignity & Respect -- was printed by the Army this summer for distribution among its ranks. But this Dubya-friendly work is hardly Doonesbury material. It is more like Mary Worth, a consternated and melodramatic effort chronicling the adventures of officers and soldiers dealing with homosexuals in their midst.
Consider the panel on Page 5, on how to properly begin an investigation without creating a witch hunt:
"Sir, Sgts. Hall and Johnson just came to see me. They apparently witnessed a homosexual act involving Pfc. Howard and a soldier from another unit."
"Why don't you tell me what they saw ...."
Or the panels on Pages 25 and 26, where an incident of gay harassment is identified and properly defused:
"I am looking forward to a great weekend," one soldier tells a group of fellow soldiers. "I have a date."
"You? A date?" one skeptical soldier replies. "I would believe that Gates over there had a date with another man before I'd ever believe that you have a hot date."
Another soldier then tries to make fun of Gates, who is by himself at the other end of the room.
"Hey, Gates, would you enjoy a date with a good-looking man, too?"
Uh-oh. The commanding officer walks in and overhears the teasing: "What was that, sergeant? I didn't like the sound of that. I want to see all of you in my office NOW!"
Gay rights groups that advocate a complete lift of the ban -- but push for fairer implementation of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the meantime -- laud the training manual.
"We welcome the publication of the guide," says Steve Ralls, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "We'd rather there not be a policy excluding gay service members, but given it is the law, we think it is a positive step for the Army to go the extra step to educate its troops. It is about eight years too late, but late is better than never."
Ralls is not offended by the cartoon look of the manual. "A lot of the Army's new recruits are only 18 and 19 years old, some without even a high school education. This information needs to be accessible and clear, and not a bunch of legalese," he says. "I'd rather the training manual be in comic book format than there be nothing at all."
Military sociologist John Allen Williams, a professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago and a Navy veteran himself, says there is a long history of comic book manuals for all kinds of military training.
"This is in no way a sign of trivializing content," Williams says. "Comic books are not new to the military. They have frequently been used to teach relatively unsophisticated people how to handle and maintain very complicated machinery and equipment."
Years ago, Williams says, Army manuals even featured buxom, eye-catching cartoon women holding wrenches, to keep soldiers interested in what was being taught. "Imagine that," he says. "Those kinds of comics have all since disappeared."
Aaron Belkin, director of the UC Santa Barbara-based Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, does not find the comic book format patronizing either. But he does wish it would re-create situations real people can relate to, and not read so much like a perfectly saccharine Nick at Nite sitcom.
"Some of the situations are absolutely no reflection of what really goes on in the barracks," Belkin says. "The scenarios are so ludicrous that the author had to be from another planet to think readers would get a serious message. It almost conveys this wink-wink irony that the Army does not take harassment seriously."
While the comic deals with soldiers joking about two men going on a date, it does not tackle the very real dilemma of soldiers using violence to intimidate gay service members. That omission bothers Belkin, who cites a recent Pentagon study that shows 135,000 members of the U.S. armed forces witnessed anti-gay violence last year alone.