Did you know that your safety and security depend on gay men and lesbians?
An estimated 65,000 gay men and lesbians serve in the U.S. armed forces, though by law they cannot be open about their sexuality. As we fight two wars, our military is stretched thin. Those gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and members of the Coast Guard are essential.
Without them, we would stretch to a dangerous point the length of time troops must spend in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without them, we would lose crucial military leadership, expertise and skills. Without them, we would have a hard time meeting our military commitments worldwide.
A hearing of a House Armed Services subcommittee this week offered a critical opportunity to break the silence surrounding how military preparedness has been hurt by the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gay men and lesbians from serving openly. The military has spent more than $363 million since 1994 to throw out gay men and lesbians whose expertise we desperately need, including expensively trained and hard-to-recruit linguists, jet pilots, cyber-warriors, doctors and combat-tested master sergeants. This purging of talent takes place at the same time the military, in order to meet its manpower quotas, feels compelled to increase the number of waivers it grants to people who have had problems with the law – in some instances almost twice as many as in years past.
These patriotic gay and lesbian warriors want to serve. Yes, some “out” themselves to leave the service, usually because they have been made to feel unwelcome, unappreciated or even unsafe in their units. An estimated 3,000 gay service members depart each year rather than continue to serve under a policy that forces them to deceive their fellow warriors and to contradict the honor and integrity that are core values in our services. Those members who stay make an incredibly difficult personal sacrifice.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” also damages our nation’s ability to recruit the best and the brightest. Competing with industry is hard enough already. The military estimates that only three in 10 high school graduates are qualified to serve; the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy further reduces the pool of eligible recruits. And would you want to serve when you have to hide an essential part of yourself or would be unable to tell the chain of command about discrimination or harassment without risking your career?
Some fear a backlash from heterosexual service members, but I don’t. I grew up in Mississippi and attended segregated schools until I was a sophomore in high school. Integration was tumultuous, but it led to respect, understanding and, ultimately, a greater opportunity for blacks and whites alike to succeed. I believe integration of lesbians and gay men in the military will be easier: It has already taken place. Sadly, we just don’t recognize the gay service members among us for who they are.
It is up to Congress and the president to craft policy on gay men and lesbians serving in the military, but it is the responsibility of senior military commanders to advise our nation’s leaders on how law and policy affect military readiness. I raised this issue in 2003 when a task force I served on worked on the Navy’s diversity strategy. Senior leaders must state plainly how “don’t ask, don’t tell” affects recruiting, retention and our ability to develop essential military skills. They should speak up about how it affects military honor and integrity. It is our duty, something military leaders understand well, to speak openly of how “don’t ask, don’t tell” injures our military and weakens our preparedness.