“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”and Its Disproportionate Impact on Women

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The  New York Times  includes a  story  on the front of its national section this morning about how women were discharged under the military’s”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”policy in disproportionate numbers last year. Although women made up only 14% of Army personnel in 2007, they were 46% of those discharged under the policy banning lesbians and gay men from the military. The Air Force numbers were similar: women made up 20% of Air Force personnel, but 49% of the discharges under”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Maybe it’s just me, but the story seems to leave the impression that this was somehow anomalous, citing the respective Army and Air Force rates of discharges in 2006 as 35% and 36% and making no mention of any earlier years. But past reports from the  Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which compiled these numbers from FOIA requests, indicate that this has been a longstanding pattern under”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”For example, SLDN’sTenth Annual Report on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell  (which dates from 2004 and is the most recent one of these reports available on its web site) contains a helpful chart on p. 18 that compares the number of women in the armed forces with their rate of discharge under the ban from 1994 through 2003. In each of these years, women were disproportionately discharged under the ban.

The story also completely elides any discussion of the potential source of this disparity (which, in the following quote, it again seems to paint as anomalous):”The organization compiled gender statistics on the discharges, but conducted no formal set of interviews and thus could offer no verifiable reason for the increase in women separated from the military under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”In the report mentioned above, SLDN suggests that”lesbian baiting”may be the source of at least a portion of this disparity. Lesbian baiting occurs when a female service member (regardless of her actual or perceived sexual orientation) is accused of being a lesbian in retaliation for spurned sexual advances, a report of sexual harassment, or poor performance evaluations or unpopular orders. (For an excellent discussion of the relationship between the ban on lesbians and gay men in the military and lesbian baiting, see Michelle M. Benecke & Kirstin S. Dodge,  Military Women: Casualties of the Armed Forces’ War on Lesbians and Gay Men, in  Gay Rights, Military Wrongs: Political Perspectives on Lesbians and Gays in the Military  (Craig A. Rimmerman ed., Garland Publishing, Inc. 1996).) Although SLDN may not have surveyed this group of discharged women, I just wonder what purpose is served by ignoring the possibility that sexism may have, for yet another year, found government-sanctioned cover in the military’s anti-gay policies?

-Anthony C. Infanti

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