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Equality Forum Day 3 (Part 1): “Tomorrow Hour Zero”

The day before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence intercepted a communication known to be from al-Qaeda, boasting that “tomorrow is zero hour” (literally translated above). This possibly interesting statement went untranslated, though, until September 12. According to Alex Nicholson, who apparently speaks all living and several dead languages (and also looked like he could take me apart with his bare hands), the military was short on Arabic translators. Why? Because of discharges resulting from the “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” — but do compromise national security — policy then and now in effect.

Nicholson and fellow National History Panelist Julianne Sohn were both victims of this insane policy. Nicholson’s colleague snooped the damning information about him from a letter he’d written (in Portugese, by the way), and then reported it a few weeks later apparently out of spite. This accomplished translator, and scion of a military family, was out of a job in less than a year. Sohn had a much longer career, that finally ended when a colonel called her (while she wasn’t on active duty) to “read her her rights.” In describing this event for the first time publicly, Sohn quickly lost her composure and dissolved into tears not seen since the final of this year’s Australian Open.

Just like that, I got it.

I’m not pro-military, generally. My dad was in the Navy, but only briefly and mostly he was, er, a lifeguard stationed in the less-than-hazardous State of New Jersey. I grew up  just close enough to the Vietnam era to have breathed some of the anti-military air (which, by the way, is mostly unjustified and more than a little classist). And I’m by temperment and philosophy a pacifist (mostly). So I admit that I didn’t exactly flush with excitement upon learning that this year’s history panel would focus on “gays in the military.” But listening to these stories — especially Sohn’s — was profound and arresting. Here was a woman whose life and identity were all about the military. Now, after years of what was surely a profound struggle to manage the cognitive dissonance that results from being a part of an organization that commands your silence, it was all falling apart. Of course this is painful to call to mind. But why did this happen to her, and why are these discharges still taking place? As scholar-panelist Nathaniel Frank put it: “Wait. You’re being investigated by the U.S. Government because you’re a lesbian? It’s 2009!”

Well, how did we get here? What justifies this ban? Frank issued “the historian’s challenge” to the audience: Step into the shoes of those you disagree with. Then see if you can understand their perspective. OK, I did. And I can’t.

Frank and panelist moderator Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) provided a thumbnail review of the history and justifications for the exclusion, which is been official policy only since the 1920’s. (Here’s the first of two book plugs from today’s Forum: Nathaniel Frank’s book, “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America” — copies of which just happened to be available for purchase at the event — provides a comprehensive review of this history. It’s been favorably and informatively reviewed by Janet Maslin in The New York Times.) My simplistic take on the evolution of the military’s treatment of gay soldiers is that, as gay identity and culture became harder to  ignore, the military’s exclusionary policies became more Draconian and defensive. (In a similar vein, think of state anti-marriage equality constitutional amendments in response to a rising tide of open gay relationships.)

This cascade of policies has led to the “don’t ask, blah blah blah” policy now in force. As Frank states: There’s no evidence of any kind to justify it. It’s a remnant, a soiled selvage from an era when gays were regarded as sick and sinful. That image still has enough purchase in the military for them to be able to use coded arguments, such as “troop  cohesion,” in defense of the indefensible. Frank then raised a related point that I’d not considered: By putting gay sexual orientation forward as a ground for exclusion, the policy has the unintended consequence of putting the issue of sexuality “on the table” for all service members. “Am I acting straight enough (even though I am straight)? How will my  actions (or inactions)  be interpreted?” Does this seem like a positive effect on “unit cohesion” to you?

The policy may disappear as soon as this year, but maybe not, either. The panelists seemed to agree that Obama’s vocal support is absolutely vital; support he pledged during the campaign, but hasn’t articulated since taking office. I had the sense that their patience will run out soon. All emphasized the need for education and activism. Sohn and Nicholson have really taken up this cause with fervor, as has Frank (in a more academic but also compelling way). Sohn’s biography, detailing her impressive service, is here. Nicholson is now Executive Director of Servicemembers United, an advocacy organization for gay and lesbian military and the issues affecting them. (His blog is pretty good, too.)

At some point towards the end of the presentation, Sarvis put this question to the panelists: “Why should we care about this issue?” By the time he did, only a true and committed blockhead could have failed to understand its importance. Frank said it best: We should care because this policy “is a blemish on the integrity of our Armed services and on our entire nation.”

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Let me take a step away from reporting for a moment to make a broader statement. As I was listening to yet two more stirring panels tonight (OK, it’s last night by now), I had this thought: Perhaps by now I should be numb to all of this, my interest starting to flag. In fact, quite the opposite is happening. I remember that “the madder Hulk gets, the stronger him gets.” I’d say that “the more I hear, the more urgent all of this seems.”

There really is a great deal to do, on seemingly scores of issues big and small. These zealous panelists (including those on the family law panel, about whom I’ll blog after getting some sleep) who donate their time and enthusiasm to Equality Forum and countless other events, should inspire us all.