SWAN’s Anu Bhagwati on DOD’s ‘Civil Rights Lite’

In response to the Pentagon’s briefing on its plans for implementing the repeal of DADT, we’ve got an excellent analysis of what it means from Anu Bhagwati, the Executive Director of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). There is great reason for concern, as you’ll read — and, you need to read it.

Civil Rights Lite by Anu Bhagwati:

Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is well underway and Certification is within reach; however, LGBT servicemembers have much to fear after hearing yesterday’s Pentagon brief on Implementation.

The DoD has left the safety and welfare of LGBT servicemembers to chance by pronouncing that a focus on “Leadership, Professionalism, Discipline and Respect,” will make for a seamless transition to a post-repeal military. This impressive-sounding mantra lacks as much real-world substance as the military’s “Zero Tolerance Policy” slogan, used to crack down on a variety of ills that still continue to plague the military, ranging from driving under the influence to sexual assault of servicemembers.

To summarize: Military leadership has no intention of covering LGBT servicemembers as a “protected class” under Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) policy, the regulations designed to give basic redress to victims of discrimination and sexual harassment. As women and people of color know all too well, moving an institution forward to embrace tolerance takes a lot more than empty rhetoric and mandatory training and education (think “death by powerpoint.”) It requires that non-discriminatory language be codified in law and policy. Without written protections, and the consistent enforcement of those protections, servicemembers are at risk of daily harassment and discrimination from bigots.

Just to be clear: bigotry is alive and well in the US military, in all of the ugly forms it takes in civilian society. Despite formal integration of people of color and women in the armed forces—and contrary to the simplified narrative you often hear among repeal advocates—racism and sexism are pervasive and often times brutal in the military. Homophobia is no different. Gay-bashers have long preyed upon LGBT servicemembers, as well as those perceived to be gay, including those who do not conform to gender stereotypes. Lesbian-baiting continues to plague both straight and gay women. Homophobic, misogynist and racist terms are part and parcel of daily conversation within the military.

In practical terms, gay-bashing in the military ranges from exposure to homophobic language and a hostile work environment (Navy Captain Owen Honors forcing lewd videos upon an entire ship) to more severe forms of sexual harassment and abuse (Petty Officer Joseph Rocha being forced to simulate gay sex), to the most egregious cases of sexual assault, physical assault, and murder (PFC Barry Winchell being killed for dating a transgender woman). As those of us who work with servicemembers or veterans know, these examples are not isolated incidents—they are merely the incidents that are leaked to or reported by the media. To pronounce that gays and lesbians do not need protections under MEO policy is akin to saying that law enforcement is unnecessary on our city streets or that homeland security is unnecessary at our nation’s airports.

The military’s simplistic rhetoric that “leadership” will resolve cases of homophobic harassment and discrimination assumes that all commanders are good leaders and that no commanders are homophobic, which is a naïve notion at best. Mandatory training on personnel issues like sexual harassment has never been particularly effective in the military. There is no reason to believe that forced education on how to “integrate” gays and lesbians will be any different. MEO policy exists precisely because the military acknowledges that leadership is imperfect, training is inadequate, and that the military itself is not free of bigotry. MEO policy exists so that victims of harassment or discrimination have a means of formally filing a grievance.

Those of us who work intimately with sexual harassment and discrimination issues in the military admit that the MEO policy is an imperfect system. It requires that a victim chooses to report discrimination or harassment despite the likelihood of pushback or retribution from the chain of command. The process can be brutal and unforgiving, and is one of the main reasons most people do not report. It also does not pack the punch that civilian redress does. Servicemembers are currently prevented by US courts from seeking damages for harassment and discrimination. Also, servicemembers cannot simply quit their job. Therefore, without the MEO system, victims have no redress whatsoever. They must simply sit back and suffer.

The silence from LGBT advocates on this issue has been disappointing. Some appear to be staying quiet to keep the boat from rocking, as if the mere mention that gays and lesbians deserve basic protections from sexual harassment and discrimination is somehow going to jinx repeal. LGBT servicemembers have always been subject to homophobia, with or without DADT. But repealing DADT is only half the battle. Allowing gays to openly serve while leaving them open to unfettered abuse and discrimination by disgruntled servicemembers and irresponsible commanders will not improve military culture or hold bigots accountable. The least we can do now is finish what we started.

Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) is a veterans-led human rights organization dedicated to transforming military culture by securing equal opportunity and the freedom to serve in uniform without threat of harassment, discrimination, intimidation or assault. Anu is also a former Marine Captain — and “was the second woman to complete the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program instructor trainer school, earning a black belt in close combat techniques.”

On October 27, 2010, Joe was one of five bloggers who interviewed President Obama. Joe is a DC-based political consultant with over twenty-five years of experience at both the state and federal level. Joe has managed political operations and legislative efforts for both candidates and issues-based organizations. For seven years, he was the Director of State Legislation at Handgun Control, Inc. He served as that organization's first Political Director during the 2000 cycle. Joe is a graduate of the University of Maine School of Law. In addition, he has a Masters in Public Administration from Lehigh University and received his B.A. from the University of New Hampshire. Joe also has a fun dog, Petey, a worthy successor to Boomer, who got Joe through eight years of Bush and Cheney. Joe likes to think he is a world class athlete having finished the 2005 Chicago Marathon in the time of 4:10. He has completed six other marathons as well -- and is still determined to break the four hour mark.

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