Now Make Him Do It

Posted on March 3, 2009
Filed Under Book Review, Gays in the Military | 319 Comments

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with reformers in the Oval Office, he responded to their requests with three cryptic sentences:  “I agree with you.  I want to do it.  Now make me do it.”  This possibly apocryphal quotation has become something of a viral cliche.  I only mention it because shortly after taking office President Obama posted a list of gay priorities online.  It’s a pretty good list too–although it does not include gay marriage.  To my knowledge, this is the first time in American history a president has put out a list of promises after taking office. In my opinon, President Obama–a student of history–is asking us to make him do these things.

How do we make our government expand LGBT rights?  As an ACT-UP veteran, I know there is a time and a place for shouting down politicians.  This is neither the time nor the place.

Reasoned intelligent argument is what is called for now.  And the best example of this is Nathaniel Frank’s Unfriendly Fire which is published by St. Martin’s today.  Mr. Frank’s book is both a beautifully-written history of queers in the military and an intelligent argument against the gay military ban.  Much of the book centers on the year 1993–when then-President Bill Clinton took ten months to go from gays in the military proponent to “Don’t ask.  Don’t tell.” fan.  It was a bad year for Bill Clinton and a disastrous year for queers.  Mr. Frank does an excellent job of illustrating how Mr. Clinton really just wasn’t up for the fight.  He didn’t realize that by passing over Senator Sam Nunn for the Secretary of State job, he was leaving a powerful opponent in place.  He didn’t foresee ugly Senate hearings with (former) segregationist Strom Thurmond playing a reliable second fiddle–occasionally yapping out nasty, otherwise masked prejudices.  To a gay witness:  “…your lifestyle is not normal.  It is not normal for a man to be with a man or for a woman to be with a woman.”  And the room erupted in applause.

For all the deliberate political framing, these hearings were clearly motivated by hatred and vengeance.  And some of the rhetoric used seems shocking by today’s standards.  But this book is a history.  And it didn’t end in 1993.

In Unfriendly Fire, Mr. Frank skillfully renders two parallel histories.  The first is the international story.  Mr. Frank meticulously describes how several countries eliminated their military gay bans.  (Twenty-four countries, have eliminated the ban so far.  Including:  Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Israel, Italy, Spain  and South Africa.)  At one point, Mr. Frank comes very close to apologizing for the repetitiveness of these stories.  All of these countries went through the transition smoothly.  The elimination of the gay bans had no impact on recruitment, unit cohesion or morale.  Anecdotal evidence even shows some improvement in morale–with both gays and straights feeling more comfortable.

The second part of this history deals with the United States military.  “Don’t ask.  Don’t tell.” quickly devolved into a legal briar patch for gays.  This inherently hypocritical scheme was far too nuanced for the military brass, so they simply chose to transform it into a living nightmare for gays in the military.  Women who resist sexual advances from men are routinely accused of lesbianism and then investigated thoroughly.  Friends are coerced into testifying against friends.  A soldier who confesses gay desires to a therapist is promptly discharged.  In this witch-hunt environment, no one is free from fear.

There is another argument against “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”  And to most Americans, it is probably the strongest argument.  Put simply, it is the ‘brain drain’ argument.  Mr. Frank describes in chilling detail, how the United States government intercepted two critical telephone messages from within Afghanistan:  “The match is about to begin.” and “Tomorrow is the zero hour.”  These messages were intercepted on September 10, 2001.  Unfortunately, these messages were in Arabic.  And our government just didn’t have enough Arabic linquists to translate these messages right away.  One year later, the Bush administration admitted they didn’t have enough Arabic linguists.  A recent suit brought under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that twenty gay Arabic linguists were discharged between 1998 and 2004.  We don’t know how many have been discharged since then.  But one thing is clear:  We still don’t have enough Arabic linguists.

In another chapter, “Gays out, Ex-convicts in,” Mr. Frank realistically renders the United States military today.  And guess what?  The U.S. military is practically begging qualified people to serve.  And at the same time gays and lesbians are being thrown out solely because of their sexuality.  Can anyone say this is defensible–let alone intelligent?

Nathaniel Frank’s new book is brilliant.  And that alone cheers me up.  But there’s still some part of me that wants a happy ending out of this.  The problem is–as Mr. Frank carefully explains–“Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” isn’t just an executive order; it’s also an act of congress.  And recently Paul Schindler reported in the Gay City News that repeal of “Don’t Ask. Don’t tell.” will be an uphill battle.

So how do you “make him do it”?  Organize.  Use the new media and the old media to set up working groups.  Arrange sit-down meetings with your members of congress and your senators.  Work with national organizations.  And first of all:  read this book.

Nathaniel Frank’s Unfriendly Fire:  How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America is published by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press.

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