Lesbian baiting in the barracks.
The comments from the lieutenant colonel caught Nicole Galvan off guard. Galvan, a third-year cadet at West Point, had gone into New York City in January 1996 with a fellow female cadet to celebrate Galvan's 21st birthday, an infraction of the military academy's rules. The Army officer called both young women into his office and asked if the two were friends or lovers. When they said friends, he launched into a discussion of how others might perceive them to be gay.
Galvan left his office shaken, feeling a victim of sexual harassment, and she vented in her diary. The next day she sought the advice of a professor who encouraged her to write a memo detailing what the lieutenant colonel had said. She did. And that's when her problems got worse. According to Galvan, the officer called her and her friend back into his office and berated Galvan for submitting her memo. Three weeks later, two officers confiscated her diary. She didn't know it at the time, but West Point already had accessed all of her E-mail messages dating back to her freshman year.
The confiscated material was a collage of Galvan's emotions and thoughts, including her growing acceptance of herself as a lesbian. The military began a full investigation, based on her writings, that targeted as many as 30 women, Galvan says. She and two others were brought up on charges of homosexuality. All three had an administrative hearing, and all three, facing the likelihood of a discharge, left West Point voluntarily, she says.
In Galvan's eyes the probe into her sexual orientation was retaliation for the sexual harassment charge she leveled. "I felt everyone was against me," she says. "My commanders seized my property, cadets screamed out that I was a dyke, and other people got targeted all because I stood up for myself."
West Point officials certainly don't view what happened to Galvan as retaliation. "Mere was never a formal charge made during this incident on harassment," says Lt. Col. Rick Machamer, a spokesman for West Point. Machamer says West Point investigated the alleged homosexual conduct of three cadets--privacy rules precluded him from identifying them, but it was clear he was referring to the Galvan case--because of a fight between two cadets. Galvan does say she got into a verbal fight with another female cadet shortly after she was harassed.
Galvads story comes as the Army and the rest of the military confront a sexual harassment crisis, one brought to light because of reported rapes at Army training facilities in Aberdeen, Md., and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. What gay-rights and women's groups want federal officials and the public to recognize is that what happened to Galvan at West Point is happening to other women throughout the military. Indeed, in many cases the connection is more explicit: Women risk being labeled lesbian when they refuse to grant sexual favors.
"Lesbian baiting is a ready weapon of sexual harassment," says Michelle Benecke, a former Army officer and the co-executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington, D.C. group that offers legal help to those who fear being caught by policies governing gays in the military.
But is the U.S. military--and the political powers that judge what die military does--ready to consider the link between sexual harassment and the military's attitude toward homosexuality? After all, the beginning of President Clinton's first term in office was marred because of the turbulent debate surrounding his 1992 promise to open the military's doors to gays and lesbians. As Clinton enters his second term, the military's sexual culture is again on trial. Yet so far, the mood in Washington is to play it straight.
"Honestly, I just can't see us opening up that door again'" says an aide to one House Republican who is looking into the sexual-harassment issue. "The feeling on [Capitol] Hill is that we've put [the issue of] gays in the military behind us." But Chris Cimko, a spokeswoman for the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the panel is willing to listen to credible stories of lesbian baiting: "We're not going to discriminate in our concern about harassment."
Officials at the White House and on Capitol Hill tried to resolve the controversy over gays in the military in 1993 with the policy that became known as "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue." Under this policy the military was forbidden to ask recruits about their sexual orientation, while gay men and lesbians in the armed forces were barred both from disclosing their homosexuality and from having gay sex. The policy was also supposed to have brought an end to military investigations founded on the rumor that a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine is gay. West Point and the other service academies fall under the same rules as the rest of the military.
But while gay men and lesbians who now serve report that a certain amount of the stress and tension associated with being gay and being in the military has lifted, others argue that the military continues to force them out of the service. In a report SLDN released in February 1996 to mark the second anniversary of "don't ask, don't tell," the up says that in fiscal 1995 the Defense Department discharged 722 people for homosexuality--a four-year high and a 21% increase from fiscal. 1994. The figures for fiscal 1996 are not yet available.
The wide-scale investigations to root out gay men and lesbians, dubbed witch-hunts, were supposed to have gone away with the new policy but were in fact continuing, the report says. And within those numbers wa; another fact--women were disproportionately targeted. Even though women make up only 13% of the military's active forces, they represented 21% of those discharged for violating "don't ask, don't tell" in 1995. And women make up 30% of the cases SLDN handles.
Benecke, for one, sees a dear connection between "don't ask, don't tell" and the sexual harassment of military women. "It's the same dynamic," she says. "The gay policy gives men in the military a tool to extort sexual compliance from women under the threat of calling them lesbians. If a woman reports sexual harassment or nape, they very frequently experience retaliation by the perpetrators, who accuse them of being gay."
One example of that dynamic is the case of Amy Barnes, who believes her simple refusal to talk to a male sailor who served with her on the USS Simon Lake lit the fuse that ultimately led to an investigation into her sexual orientation and her discharge from the Navy last year. "If you're a woman and single and don't want to sleep around with every guy, they think you must be gay," Barnes says in a soft voice. "That's just how everyone thought and talked." Barnes sued the Navy and settled the matter out of court in exchange for a dean record and $12,000 to go to school.
But the link is nothing new. In his book Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the US. Military, the late journalist Randy Shilts documented several cases in which a woman's sexual orientation was investigated because she reported sexual harassment to her superiors. "The way women can prove themselves to be nonlesbians is to have sex with men," Shilts wrote. "Thus antigay regulations have encouraged sexual harassment of women. Some women have allowed themselves to be raped by male officers, afraid that the alternative would be a charge of lesbianism."
In interviews with The Advocate, several women who still serve in the military reported that they confronted rumors or direct allegations about their sexual orientation when they filed sexual-harassment complaints. The women all asked not to be identified and would speak only if identifying details about their cases were not printed. "It runs so deep," says one Army officer whose superior made overt sexual advances to her and then tried to prove she was a lesbian after she reported the incident "Until there are some careers damaged in the military's higher echelons, I don't think they're going to do anything about" the overall sexual-harassment problem let alone the connection it has to sexual orientation.
When the current sexual-harassment scandal broke, part of the Army's response to the charges was to establish a hot line for women to call to report harassment. Army officials, however, will not detail the type of harassment being discussed in the calls and cannot say whether lesbian baiting is being treated as a type of sexual harassment. Maj. Joseph Piek, an Army spokesman, says, "They're really keeping what they are focusing on to themselves because this has been such a major event."
One military panel has raised questions about the link between sexual harassment and sexual orientation. In April 1989 the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service heard testimony from several women who said lesbian baiting was indeed a problem. The committee issued a recommendation for the military to "expand existing leadership training to include dealing with unfounded allegations of homosexuality against Service, members."
"As far as I know, the military has never made any acknowledgment of the [committee] report or made any attempt to address the issue," says Kathleen Gilberd, cochair of the Military Law Task Force, a San Diego--based commission that is part of the National Lawyers Guild. Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the committee said she could not determine what happened to the recommendation but added that the committee is not currently looking into the issue. It is scheduled to meet in February to establish its own goals for the year.
One signal that military officials are at least willing to take a fresh look at the issue of lesbian baiting is that they want to talk to Benecke of the SLDN. Benecke received a call in mid December from officials with the Army's sexual-harassment task force asking for a briefing on lesbian baiting. The meeting was scheduled for January.
Lawmakers--especially the growing number of women in Congress--have jumped on the military over the general topic of sexual harassment. The House created a three-member task force to keep tabs on the military's response. One of the lawmakers on that panel is Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who last year was a leader in the fight to prevent HIV-positive troops from being discharged. A spokeswoman for Harman said the congresswoman would not comment on the issue of lesbian baiting because she was waiting to see the results of the military's inquiry.
Whatever the military's or Congress's response, it will be too late for Galvan. About to turn 22, Galvan is a student at California State University, Hayward, studying environmental studies and turning into a gay activist. She wants people to know what happened to her. "I can picture my sister or some other woman going through West Point," she says. I don't want them to live like I did. I don't want them to worry about reporting sexual harassment."
RELATED ARTICLE: A defensible choice
William Cohen, President Clinton's new defense secretary, is a moderate with a mixed record on gay issues
When President Clinton tapped William Cohen to be his new defense secretary, C. Dixon Osburn burn himself shrugging his shoulders and going back to work. It wasn't the best news he had heard, but more important, it wasn't the worst. Osburn, co-executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, was prepared along with other gay rights activists for Clinton to throw out another name--Sam Nunn--a former lawmaker whom many gays and lesbians blamed in 1993 for killing Clinton's plan to drop the military's gay ban.
"I saw Cohen's appointment more like business as usual," Osburn says from his office at Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network, the Washington, D.C., group that provides legal help to gays and lesbians in the armed forces. "I'm hopeful fie will be open to hearing what's going on in the military and will take corrective actions."
The Maine Republican represents President Clinton's attempt to make his second-term cabinet more of a bipartisan administration. The 56-year-old was planning on leaving government after 18 years in the Senate and, before that, six in the House until Clinton nominated him to replace William Perry at the Defense Department. A political moderate who specialized in defense issues on Capitol Hill, Cohen found himself at odds with both his fellow Republicans and with Clinton on defense policy. When the Senate debated the presence of gays in the military in 1993, Cohen spoke in favor of keeping the ban in place, although he also voted for the final "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But Cohen takes a different tack on gay rights in the civilian world. Last year he voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have prohibited discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace. (It failed to pass.)
And while gay rights groups are not asking for Cohen to reopen the gays-in-the-military debate, they hope hell be willing to listen. Says Osburn: "I don't think be realizes that `don't ask, don't tell'--the policy he voted for--creates an atmosphere that lets sexual harassment thrive."
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article on Defense Secretary William Cohen's stance on gay issues; activists allege the military uses probe into sexual orientation as weapon against women who charge sexual harassment|
|Author:||Moss, J. Jennings|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Feb 4, 1997|
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