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Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military.

A few days after Bill Clinton was elected President, I received a call from a former sailor named Ken, from Tennessee. What, he wanted to know, did I think Bill Clinton was going to do for veterans like him, who had been recently discharged just because they were gay?

He then told of being so cruelly tormented by Marine guards during three months in pretrial confinement that he slashed his throat in an attempt to end his misery. After a pretrial hearing, the criminal charges against him--arson--were dropped, and he was instead involuntarily discharged for being homosexual.

I felt uncomfortable listening to Ken pour out his story. It wasn't that I disbelieved him--quite the contrary. I had heard many similar stories during the twenty years I've spent working on military-personnel issues as a writer and attorney.

What bothered me was the persistence of such cruelty and that so many Americans were willing to accept it as long as it was directed at homosexuals. Nothing has happened in the intervening months--as the Right has successfully mobilized against Clinton's proposal to rescind the military's gay ban--to lift my dark mood.

The greatest value of Randy Shilt's book, Conduct Unbecoming, may be his systematic account of the toll as thousands of innocents like Ken have their military careers (and, in some cases, their lives) destroyed by command-sanctioned homophobia. Is it naive to hope that if enough attention is focused on the terrible human cost of this immoral and cruel policy it can, eventually, be changed?

Anyone who has read And the Band Played On, Shilts's best-selling account of the AIDS crisis, knows that he is a first-rate researcher and reporter. From 1,100 interviews for Conduct Unbecoming, he culls several hundred stories of active-duty GIs who were persecuted for no reason other than their sexual orientation. At least 15,000 gays and lesbians were driven out of the military during the Reagan-Bush years, without the slightest evidence that their sexual orientation had any negative effect on their performance as soldiers, sailors, or aviators.

Shilts reminds the reader that Ronald Reagan spent millions in the 1980 Presidential campaign to pound away at the Democratic platform's endorsement of gay rights. Once in office, Reagan began enforcing new rules that allowed the military to discharge suspected without any proof of misconduct. According to the revised Department of Defense directive, any GI who "demonstrate[s] a propensity to engage in homosexual conduct" can be tossed.

"Propensity" was soon stretched to cover any gesture or statement that even vaguely hinted at interest in the same sex. Shilts discloses that the policy change had actually been devised by a Carter Administration official, with the proviso that anyone separated in this fashion be given an honorable discharge.

The Reaganites quickly jettisoned this requirement.

Shilts does a good job of demonstrating the hypocrisy of many military heterosexuals, who tolerate and even encourage homoerotic behavior. He cites as one example the Navy's "shellback" ceremonies--in which soldiers simulate anal sex and similar behavior to celebrate crossing the Equator. As for the unusually harsh repression that is directed against suspected lesbians, Shilts argues that it stems more from a virulent misogyny than from homophobia.

This book provides a valuable public service by shining some light on the criminal investigative agencies of the services as they ride roughshod over legal rights in their avid pursuit of suspected homosexuals. Shilts nominates the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) as the leader of this pack for its sheer venality. This agency garnered some unwanted publicity a few years ago when its corrupt investigation of the explosion aboard the U.S.S. Iowa blew up in its face. Rather than conduct an honest investigation which might have uncovered command errors, the NIS blamed the blast on one of its victims. Without any solid evidence, the Naval investigators claimed the sailor caused the explosion because another sailor had rebuffed his homosexual advances.

I believe Shilts could have improved his book by delving more deeply into the larger issues of the military-justice system. Because this system is so susceptible to manipulation by commanders (what lawyers call "unlawful command influence"), it's easy to railroad gays and lesbians with the court-martial process, should they attempt to fight their administrative discharge.

Conduct Unbecoming traces the evolution of militancy among active-duty gays and lesbians as the larger movement for homosexual liberation gained confidence and strength over the past fifteen years. In the 1960s and 1970s, Shilts reports, almost no one in uniform fought an ouster, making the job of the homophobes that much easier.

Shilts records, in considerable detail, the long and arduous legal battles waged by Sergeants Perry Watkins, Leonard Matlovich, Miriam Ben-Shalom, Lieutenant Ellen Nesbitt, Captain Dusty Pruitt, and many others, to prevent the military from excluding them from service because of their sexual orientation. For some reason, Shilts does not discuss the important case of Navy Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, who was the first ousted homosexual to win reinstatement to duty in November 1992.

Shilts devotes a good deal of attention to the Pentagon's mandatory HIV test program and to the medical care it provides "positives" and those suffering from AIDS. He describes the military's HIV guidelines as "the most humane and progressive" in the country. When he appeared on The Larry King Show to promote his book, Shilts stated that the military had done a good job with its HIV test program.

Having received many reports of abuses from GIs in all of the service branches, particularly with respect to the confidentiality of medical records, I believe Shilts is giving the military more credit than it deserves.

The most glaring omission in Conduct Unbecoming is the absence of any discussion of Bill Clinton's campaign pledge to end the military's no-gays rule. Since Clinton made the promise a year before the book was published, the lapse seems inexcusable.

Clinton's pledge provoked a firestorm of controversy and brought the debate over the human rights of gays and lesbians into every living room in America. Such powerful organizations as the Moral Majority, Operation Rescue, and the major veterans' groups have been mobilizing since election day to defeat this change. They claim that dropping the military's ban on lesbians and gays will not simply end discrimination but will, in fact, encourage the spread of sinful behavior.

Readers would have benefited from Shilts's interpretation and analysis of these events and issues. It now appears likely that Clinton will abandon his pledge, with incalculable impact on the rights of gays and lesbians, both within and outside of the military.

As I was writing this, I decided to check in with Ken again. He told me that since his second suicide attempt he has been too nervous to look for work. It was clear from just a few minutes of conversation that he remains emotionally fragile. After I rang off, I sat for a while staring out into Madison Square Park and thinking, how can anyone believe that the sexual orientation of this gentle man justifies what was done to him?
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Author:Ensign, Tod
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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