Dispatch

They’re Here, They’re Queer, It’s No Big Deal

They’re Here, They’re Queer, It’s No Big Deal

Viewed from Israel, the continuing witch hunt against gays and lesbians in the U.S. military makes little sense. I have studied and written about the experience of gay soldiers in elite combat units of the Israel Defense Forces, where restrictions on gay enlistment were lifted in 1993, the same year the United States introduced the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy requiring gay and lesbian servicemembers to say in the closet or risk being discharged. There has never been any suggestion that the participation of these men has hindered the performance of Israeli combat units.

The United States and Turkey are now the only NATO military powers that do not allow gays to serve openly, but Israel and other countries have shown that the participation of gay soldiers in combat units presents no risk for military effectiveness. What’s more, acknowledging their presence might even improve unite cohesion.

It is important to understand that even without restrictions, most gay soldiers do not "come out" in combat settings. Only a few of the soldiers I have interviewed confided their sexuality in friends from the unit, and they often did so shortly before leaving their position. Most of them developed strategies to separate between their various personal and social identities. One soldier, a gay activist prior to his enlistment, explained to me: "I don’t really see that the army and my identity have anything to do with each other. Just like there is a separation of religion and state, I draw a line between the army and my ‘religion.’"  This ability to balance conflicting identities is hardly unusual in the army. Soldiers of various ethnic and religious backgrounds similarly adjust to the melting pot of military culture.

This is why the policy of "don’t ask, don’t tell" has little relevance to the reality of military life. Despite what military officials want to ask or insist on not asking, and despite what gay activists want soldiers to tell about their sexuality, most straight soldiers are not interested in hearing it, and many gay soldiers are not interested in telling it. They simply are what they are and find ways to function together. Policies restricting the participation of gay soldiers paradoxically make sexuality a more salient issue.

Opponents of allowing gays to serve openly often point to the aggressive macho culture that dominates military units. But it is also hardly news that the military is a male-dominated homo-social institution based on intimate emotions between fellow soldiers. From the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Vikings to modern Israelis and Americans, close male bonding is a widely acknowledged component of military acumen. Regardless of sexual orientation, soldiers’ erotic tensions are managed, controlled, and then channeled and used as an aggressive driving force to strike the enemy.

"Don’t ask, don’t tell" has made things more complicated not only for gays but also for straights in the military. In the Israeli military, the lack of a legal penalty for disclosing one’s sexual identity means that "over-affectionate" pals can choose to confirm or deny homosexual preferences to their fellow soldiers. But when "telling" is not an option, suspicion and paranoia of prevail.

The paradox is that when gays are allowed in the military, but not allowed to identify as such, everyone becomes suspected of being gay. It is no wonder that a rise in sexual harassment and homophobic crimes have been reported in the U.S. military ever since the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy was introduced. When intimacy and sexuality — which are, like it or not, key features of masculine military culture — cannot be negotiated, cannot be told and discussed, they may be turned inwards, transformed into an urge to hunt fellow soldiers.

Israel’s experience is a valuable starting point for the Pentagon as it begins to study what overturning "don’t ask, don’t tell" would mean. First, it is by now well-acknowledged that the mere participation of gays in combat units of the Israel Defense Forces has had no bearing on military performance and unit cohesion, whether or not soldiers come out. Second, Israel’s experience shows that the presentation of the debate as a problem of accepting "open gays" is misleading. The dilemma of "exposure" is merely a distortion produced by the current U.S. policy. Israel has prevented sexual orientation to become a source of cause disruption by treating it as a fact of life rather than a problem to be addressed.

In Israel, military authorities have kept gay enlistment a minor concern by sticking to a minimal strategy:  officially acknowledge the full participation of gays and at the same time ignore them as a group that may require special needs. Gay soldiers do not receive, and do not expect to receive, any special treatment in combat settings. It is simply a non-issue. If the U.S. government will adopt a similar course, it could enjoy not only a more liberal military, but also, perhaps, a more combat-effective one where the focus is on defeating the enemy rather than questioning fellow soldiers.

At a time when Americans are attempting to lead a campaign against terror and foreign dictatorships in the name of democracy, they should be more apprehensive of what is happening in their own military backyard.