Monday, May 25, 2009

Breaking through Boundaries

There was a time when homosexuality was rarely spoken of, even unknown. Before the 19th Century, homosexuality didn’t even have its own name. Sodomy, being anal or oral sex, could refer to same-sex or opposite-sex acts.

During World War I, the discovery of a “vice-ring” in Newport, Rhode Island led the U. S. Navy to prosecute numerous sailors for “unnatural” relations, and those found guilty were thrown into military prisons. By the time the U. S. entered World War II officials realized it would be impractical to throw thousands of men in jail over sexual acts, especially when they were needed in civilian employment. So, the U. S. Military began asking draftees about homosexuality, with many young men having to have the word’s meaning explained to them. It wasn’t until after the war, with the publication of Kinsey’s two famous studies on sexuality that the public began to realize how common homosexuality was.

With the exception of some extremely brave pioneers like Frank Kameny, the vast majority of gay men and lesbians remained in the closet even as the sexual revolution rocked the heterosexual world.

In the aftermath of the White Night Riots of 1979, a unspoken deal was struck between the gay community and straights: “You live in your little gay ghettos (The Castro; Greenwich Village; Key West - and if you’re rich enough, you can even have a summer home in Fire Island or Provincetown), but don’t you dare move to our suburbs and disturb our tranquil, unthinking existence.” Even the onset of AIDS, which religious bigots described as God’s punishment, did not disturb that arrangement.

Today, in the United States, it’s increasingly recognized that gays come in all shapes, sizes, religions, and colors. We’re no longer consigned to select urban areas. Some of us are brave enough to move to the suburbs, or even the country, and live openly there. We work in all professions now, and refuse to be confined to earning a living as florists, chorus singers, or choreographers. And, despite the rants of religious extremists and lonely bigots, most straights accept gays, up to a certain point. But not all segments of society are equal in their acceptance.

The bravest of all are our men and women in uniform who choose to come out. People like Lt. Dan Choi, Lt. Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, and 2nd Lieutenant Sandy Tsao, who have risked their lives for their country, and who now risk their careers in the cause of justice. They are the heroes of our time, for despite open homosexuality in the ancient Greek and Roman armies, today’s military remains a conservative environment – particularly among older, higher ranking, officers.
When Bill Clinton clumsily tried to repeal the ban on openly gay service people in 1993, it coincided with the coming out of several service members, including Margarethe Cammermeyer, and Jose Zuniga, two highly decorated officers. Their coming out helped put to rest once and for all the ridiculous assumption that gays couldn’t fight or serve effectively. Today, even the most bigoted Congressman would not dare to utter such nonsense on national television. So, supporters of the ban created Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on the proposition that openly gay people within the ranks would harm unit cohesion.

“Unit cohesion” is a fancy was of saying team-spirit – or the ability of people to work together. The ability of American military units to work together despite vast differences in racial, religious, and political background is important. But should it be held sacrosanct when it contradicts American ideals?

Harry Truman didn’t think so. In 1948 (months before a contentious election) President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the military. This was a full 16 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the passing of which was hardly a cakewalk. It would be naïve to pretend that unit-cohesion wasn’t impacted by Truman’s decision. It would also be an underestimation of Truman (and there were many who underestimated him in 1948) to imply he didn’t know there would be stress and tension among American’s military units. But Truman, as was often the case, followed his conscience and signed the order. It took six years for the military to be completely desegregated. But that still put the military ten years ahead of the country in general.

In 2009, the military has fallen behind the national standard. Americans, by and large, may not be ready to accept same-sex marriage. But the overwhelming majority believes that no one should be denied a job because he or she is gay – even if that job is in the military. Americans are not naïve like we were in 1940. Americans know that serving in the military means abandoning privacy – sleeping, showering, and relieving ones selves under one roof, often with no barriers. Americans also know that, if one belongs to a health club, one has probably already showered with a homosexual. It’s simply not a big deal in our evolving society. Increasing numbers of heterosexual soldiers are coming forward, stating they’re well aware of fellow soldiers who are gay – and that they just don’t care.

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