Sunday, May 30, 2010

L.G.B.T. vs. D.o.D.: When Subcultures Collide

The controversy over repealing the military's never-satisfactory "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy has taken yet another contentious turn. As the military conducts a painstaking process to give its personnel a chance to voice their thoughts and concerns over the repeal of the policy that has required lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered military personnel to operate below the radar, the L.G.B.T. community has grown suspicious, restless, impatient, and downright rude and disrespectful. A prominent California gay activist has now heckled President Obama twice at events on the West Coast, the most recent this week's rally for Sen. Barbara Boxer. I have avoided Rachel Maddow and MSNBC of late, but one can just imagine whose side they took. I hope I err in saying that; more's the pity if I don't.

When I speak of sub-cultures colliding, don't think two-car crash; think train-wreck on a high-speed track in France or Japan, spilling carnage everywhere. In an election year, the Democratic Congress fears looking too submissive to the cautious pace of the military. They have as a partner--perhaps "had" puts it better now--Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who approaches this issue not from the point of view of whether to repeal "don't-ask-don't-tell," but how to do it. One of his predecessors, retired General John Shalikashvili, has supported repeal for some time, having presided over the early days of the policy and seen the error of its assumptions and the evolution of the attitudes in the military itself, at least among some personnel. With voices in the military saying in a business-like way, 'we'll work with you, just give us till December to complete our review'--as the president wisely agreed to let them do--Congress has jumped ship and begun to ram repeal legislation through both chambers.

One can distribute blame, and even praise, in various ways in this conflict. The L.G.B.T. community, in addition to exhibiting feelings of entitlement once having helped elect Obama, has no historic cultural sympathy for the military; quite the reverse in many circles. Many wonder beyond their comprehension why one of them would even want to serve in the military. Some L.G.B.T. support for repeal, particularly the activist variety, amounts to hypocrisy of a high order--repeal a bill that discriminates against their community, the institutional identity and loyalties of that segment of the community be damned.

Admittedly, some live close enough to or even within the military community that they see it very differently. They do not cringe at the sight of a young man with tattoos and short-cropped hair if he doesn't wear an earring, as well, or see lesbians as having ceded female power by submitting themselves to military command. Some actually admire them--gasp--for doing things beyond their capacities. This attitude comes without flag-waving hero-worship, and without the pretense that the military has rid itself of gay-bashing rednecks or paper-pushing homophobes. It hasn't, and probably won't for some time. L.G.B.T. soldiers, sailors, leathernecks, fliers, and support personnel do something every day that requires considerable bravery: they go to work, whether in Kandahar Province or Baghdad's Green Zone, Ramstein Air Base or the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Hood or the Pentagon. They put their uniforms on and do their best to adhere to a code that for some, though not all, has become onerous and unbearable.

Another element has to enter this conversation. The notion of repeal comes harder to an older generation of military brass and civilian administration than to that of military service age. Again, with exceptions, largely based on class, religion, and regional background. Repeal can happen now; just don't expect roses to show up on the front stoop of L.G.B.T. military personnel, most of whom would not want it any other way. It has taken Mike Mullen a while to come to his current position, and Defense Secretary Gates has had the distinct air of a man following orders and looking for a way to demonstrate their lack of wisdom. This drives the activists crazy. I have one word for them: compassion (and believe me, I started to write something else, more John Wayne or Mark Harmon than Jesus or Buddha).

Understand the scope of this change. Understand the wisdom of this president in letting the military manage the repeal their way, on their time. Call me naive, but I believe Mullen, however much he may have felt his hand forced by political considerations, as indeed they have done. Activism and Congressional poll-watching may have just made this whole process more acrimonious and awkward, which ultimately will most hurt those it most seeks to benefit. One can always understand the thrust of Rev. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"--'' why we can't wait"--but please explain to me why, in the case of "don't-ask-don't-tell" we can't wait till December for the military to do an orderly review? Do we have so little respect for each other? Do we have so little interest in the sacrifices the military personnel make to defend their belief in our system of government and way of life?

If you dismiss the notion that a kid dodging i.e.d.'s (improvised explosive devices--crude mines) in Afghanistan defends what you believe in, think about what you'd say as you watched him speed around your place of business on an artificial limb, as I did the other day. And--imagine this--it never occurred to me to wonder whether he was gay or straight or bi- or transgendered. The artificial leg rendered all that irrelevant. He asked for no pity, and frankly I felt none. Only awe.