Ask, Tell. Now what?

So, like, since the vote last Saturday, I’ve been trying to figure out how to blog about the repeal by the United States Senate of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the law that was essentially a passive-aggressive ban on non-heterosexuals in the various branches of that country’s armed forces.

As a Canadian (a country in which queers have been accepted in the military for eighteen years without the sky falling) I hadn’t really paid much attention to the DADT issue in the United States, mainly because, quite frankly, I don’t really care. I read the news, so I’ve been half-consciously aware of what’s been happening, but I haven’t focussed on it, the same way I haven’t focused on news about Republican evangelical Ted Haggard snorting crystal meth off of the gluteals of gay prostitutes, or news about pre-pubescent boy-singer Justin Bieber. (Sorry about that last sentence – I just threw it in so that I can amuse myself later when I read the blog’s traffic stats).

Lately, though, DADT has kind of wormed its way more deeply into my news-cluttered brain, mainly because an American friend in upstate New York launched a blog dedicated to the subject in October. Harry has been writing a letter to Barack Obama every day, demanding that the President work harder to repeal DADT, and then posting the letters on his blog. I appreciate Harry’s efforts, even if at times I thought he was being a little hard on Obama. Harry’s a thoughtful, caring, generous member of his community, and I congratulate him on walking the talk, as they say. He’s participating in his government, and that should be a good thing.

As much as I admire Harry’s willingness to speak up for equality, I’ve been reading his letters with a continuing unease.

Now, there’s no question that I’m happy that progress is being made on civil rights: there’s absolutely no justifiable reason to deny equality to people because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, particularly in a federal agency. I’ve been an enthusiastic participant in the queer rights movement for almost a quarter of a century. I support equal opportunity in all cases. Nevertheless, to say that I was excited to see the repeal of DADT would be slightly over-emphatic.

A big part of my problem is that the idea that a queer youth would choose to join the military just seems utterly incomprehensible. In my youth, we would amuse ourselves with the idea that if there were ever a draft we’d simply show up at the recruitment depot in dresses, likely guaranteeing quick rejections. [Trivia note: Did you know that the DADT law that requires that homos be kicked out of the military has a notable exception: that anyone who “engaged in conduct or made statements for the purpose of avoiding or terminating military service” are not required to be kicked out. In other words, if you get caught with your pants down, you’re outta there, but if you affect a Max Klinger routine they might make you keep your job, and somehow your presence won’t affect troop morale negatively. Attention Pentagon: logical weakness.] Of course, many queers, it stands to reason, might discover their homosexuality after they enlist. Standing in a shower with ten guys with buzzcuts ought to make a fag out of anyone.

But here’s where we have to think about why all of these people are in the military in the first place. Are there really all that many young queers who want to leave home, live in a desert, and risk having their heads blown off in order to defend the interests of the “oiligarchy” that is running their homeland into the ground? Not likely. Most of these kids aren’t in the army out of some patriotic desire to “serve their country” – they’re there because they can’t afford college, and they have a choice of joining the army and getting their education paid for, or working at KFC for the rest of their lives.

The word “pride” is closely associated with the queer rights movement, but I can’t help but feel that this word that has long been used (overused, some would argue) as a positive slogan in the pursuit of social justice is now being incorporated into the lexicon of the drum-beating patriotic rhetoric that pollutes much of American cultural conversation. To his credit, Harry has largely refrained from engaging in the pro-war language that we usually hear and sticks to talking about things like how institutional inequality in the the military reinforces homophobia in all aspects of civilian life. Other commentators, however, have been greater proponents of the sort of mindless patriot-speak that, while not new, has certainly become much more prevalent since 9/11. Pride, unfortunately, is often invoked by proponents of DADT repeal, who speak of being able to serve their country with pride, the word having dual meaning in this context.

In his speech at the signing ceremony for the repeal, President Obama said:

There can be no doubt, there were gay soldiers who fought for American independence. Who consecrated the ground at Gettysburg. Who manned the trenches along the Western Front. Who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima.

He’s undoubtedly right. There can be no doubt, however, if we follow this logic, that there were also gay soldiers among those who tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib, blew up 13 children and the rest of their wedding party in Iraq, or massacred hundreds of unarmed peasants at My Lai. If we’re going to accept that gays and lesbians are as good as anyone else, it seems reasonable that we should also accept that they are as capable of evil as anyone else. Are we doing queers a favour by helping them discover that evil?

In the same speech, Obama also related the words of a heterosexual soldier:

We have a gay guy in the unit. He’s big, he’s mean, he kills lots of bad guys. No one cares that he’s gay.

If, in order to advance civil rights, we have to resort to language that glorifies war and killing, perhaps we need to think a little harder about what we mean by “civil” and “right”. I’m tempted to quote Jane Rule out of context:

“With all that we have learned, we should be helping our heterosexual brothers and sisters out of their state-defined prisons, not volunteering to join them there.”

Putting guns in the hands of our young and sending them into peril in order to advance American hegemony is repulsive. It’s no less so if those young people happen to be queer. Now that DADT is officially doomed, I look forward to seeing all those Americans who campaigned for its repeal to turn their attention and energy toward the dismantling of the military-industrial regime and building a truly just society for all.

Posted in

hedley bontano


  1. Meaghan Rondeau on December 23, 2010 at 13:06

    So, the obvious question here is: how many people found this post by Googling “Justin Bieber” or some variant?

  2. Meaghan Rondeau on December 23, 2010 at 13:50

    You are the #8 hit for “Justin Bieber bisexual KFC army”!

  3. Hedley on December 23, 2010 at 14:46

    Jeez, Google doesn’t waste any time. I should put some ads for acne cream on my site. I’m going to start mentioning him at least once in every post until my site’s more popular than Lady Gaga’s.

  4. chris bitten on December 23, 2010 at 14:47

    Fabulous. So well thought out and stated.

  5. Tim Cooley on December 23, 2010 at 15:19

    Bravo, bravo, bravo, Ed.
    I’ve had the same struggle playing in my head for quite some time. Part of me is aware that it is some sort of movement toward acceptance, but I find it hard to be thrilled at just what we are being invited to be a part of. Thanks for your words.

  6. Meaghan Rondeau on December 23, 2010 at 23:33

    I tried a similar experiment once (an entire post consisting of filthy sexual phrases one after another) and it didn’t work nearly as well as I’d hoped. BUT, I am still the #1 hit for Googlers of “grandmother anal beads.” This is probably the greatest thing I will ever accomplish.

  7. Meaghan Rondeau on December 24, 2010 at 00:38

    (Not that I’m trying to make light of your post, by the way; it’s just that ridiculousness is my default setting when I’m on Facebook.)

  8. Hedley on December 24, 2010 at 01:35

    Well, what is Facebook for if not ridiculousness?

  9. Larissa Lai on December 24, 2010 at 03:37

    good blog, good hat. now what about queers in the heterosexual family unit?

  10. John Hearst on December 24, 2010 at 05:40

    You’ve nailed the mixed bag of Ask, Tell on the head. If we could mobilize this effectively on dismantling our corporate driven culture, then we could speak of pride! And in fact, the main strategy of the DADT campaign for removal was to display all the highly qualified GLBT folks who served well and were discharged for their sexual orientation; show the world “we” are just like “you”. And do we want to be? Having said that, I am happy that access is not being denied to people who want that option; we can have more social effectiveness inside the system.

  11. Colin Brownlee on December 24, 2010 at 06:36

    obviously written by a Canadian commie….

  12. Hiromi Goto on January 3, 2011 at 06:02

    Well-thought, well-articulated. One question: aside from the problematics of making recruitment more equitable, what do you think about the effects of DADT for the enlisted who are already caught w/i?