Military Gay Policy Defended

ByRobert Burns

W A S H I N G T O N, July 21, 2000 -- The military’s much-criticized policy onhomosexuals in uniform is working, but training must be improved toeliminate anti-gay behavior like the abuse that led to a soldier’smurder in Kentucky last year, the Defense Department said today.

“We think we’ve got it right this time,” Undersecretary ofDefense Bernard Rostker said at a news conference to publicize anew departmental program to re-emphasize in training that suchbehavior is unacceptable.

Rostker said he disagreed with President Clinton’s statementlast year, after the beating death of Pfc. Barry Winchell by afellow soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky., that implementation of hispolicy on gays was “out of whack.”

“I don’t agree with that characterization. I think the policyis working reasonably well to provide a degree of safety” for gaysin uniform, Rostker said. “The days of witch hunts, the days ofstakeouts, are really gone.”

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Not Enough’Even so, Rostker said, more needs to be done to ensure thateveryone in the military understands the policy.

The Clinton administration’s policy on gays in the military isderived from a law passed in 1993 after Clinton failed to persuadeCongress and the Pentagon to allow gays to serve openly. Thepolicy, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” holds that gays canserve in uniform so long as they don’t reveal their sexualorientation. One problem, however, has been unwarrantedinvestigations of people suspected of being homosexual. There alsois a fear among discreetly gay service members that if theycomplain about harassment, they will be discharged.

Today’s announced plan to eliminate anti-gay behavior wascreated by a panel of civilian and military officials led by CarolDiBattiste, the undersecretary of the Air Force. It was in responseto a Pentagon inspector general’s report in March that foundanti-gay behavior was commonplace in the military.

DiBattiste said the key to her panel’s plan is adoption of an“overarching principle” meant to clarify to all in the militarythat unacceptable behavior includes not just abuse of gays but also“inappropriate comments or gestures.”

“That’s the high road that we need to take,” she said.

Enforcing ProtectionThe DiBattiste panel’s 13-point “action plan” is largely areiteration of previous expressions of determination to stamp outanti-gay behavior and to hold military commanders responsible forpolicy infractions.

Last December, Rostker’s predecessor in the undersecretary’spost, Rudy de Leon, issued a statement that “harassment of servicemembers for any reason, to include alleged or perceivedhomosexuality, will not be tolerated,” and commanders must takeprompt action against violators.

Michelle Benecke, an executive director of the ServicemembersLegal Defense Fund, an advocate for gay rights in the military anda frequent critic of Pentagon policy, called the DiBattiste panel’sreport “thoughtful and considered.”

“Today’s recommendations, if implemented, would be a very goodstart,” Benecke said.

Winchell Commanders ExoneratedThe spark that caused the Pentagon to take a closer look at thegay policy’s implementation, and at the extent of anti-gay behaviorin the field, was the Winchell murder at Fort Campbell on July 5,1999. Two of Winchell’s fellow soldiers were convicted in the crimeand are in prison.

Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, released the Armyinspector general’s report today on circumstances surrounding theWinchell murder. The report concluded that some members of DCompany, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, Winchell’s unit inthe 101st Airborne Division, violated the military’s policy againstanti-gay behavior, but it exonerated all commanders at FortCampbell.

The Army report also concluded no general climate of homophobiaexisted at Fort Campbell.

With some exceptions, “It was determined that the commandclimate at Fort Campbell before 5 July 1999 was a positiveenvironment,” the inspector general’s report said. It also saidthe chain of command at Fort Campbell “responded appropriately”when confronted with situations that appeared to violate the“don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., questioned these conclusions.

“Giving Fort Campbell a relatively clean bill of health doesn’tsquare with recent reports of prevalent anti-gay harassmentthroughout the services,” Meehan said.

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