It Gets Worse: What Repeal Of DADT May Mean For Sexual Violence In The Military

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The twin horizons of many people and organizations in the lesbian and gay community – achieving marriage equality and repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – seem like obvious civil rights goals.  They both enshrine official, legally sanctioned discrimination against gay men and lesbians.  Yet as sites for the elaboration of a free-self, military service and state regulation of homo-coupledom strike some of us as rather curious choices.

I’ve aired my issues with the marriage equality movement enough in earlier posts, but on the eve of a Senate vote on the repeal of DADT, might we consider whether, and if so how, open military service for lesbians may hold greater, or at least different, peril for lesbians than it does for gay men.

Surely gay men who will serve openly will be vulnerable to hazing, harassment and even violence from other service members who do not welcome their presence in the U.S. military.  Even in countries that have allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly for some time find their gay soldiers brutally harassed from time to time.  (See e.g. here)

But lesbians will face harassment on account of their sexual orientation in a way that compounds the kind of harassment and violence all women in the military suffer as a routine matter.  A routine matter about which the military already knows and does very little to combat.

The regular harassment of women starts in the military academies: numbers released this week showed that reported sexual assaults at the three U.S. military academies rose 64 percent in the 2009-10 academic year.  The academies acknowledge that the number of reported incidents of sexual assault represents less than 10% of actual incidents that have taken place.  It gets worse – the number of sexual assaults within the armed services rose 73 percent from 2004 to 2006 and 11 percent from 2008 to 2009.  By some estimates, one in three women in the military experience sexual assault during their enlistment.  Again, these are reported assaults, the tip of the iceberg.  A Pentagon report in March 2007 found that more than half of the investigations dating back to 2004 resulted in no action. When action was taken, only one third of the cases resulted in courts-martial.  Then there’s this: 71 percent of female veterans seeking VA disability benefits for PTSD have been sexually traumatized, not by the enemy but by their own “comrades.”

This week the ACLU of Connecticut, the national ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, and a Yale Law School Clinic filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of SWAN, the Service Women’s Action Network, seeking government records (that they had unsuccessfully sought in previous Freedom of Information Act requests) documenting incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military – what the military terms “MST” or “Military Sexual Trauma.”  The complaint is here, press release is here.

U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, among others in the military and in Congress, opposes the immediate repeal of DADT arguing that they simply aren’t ready yet.  Conway points out that Marines in particular recruit “pretty macho young Americans” (read men) who are largely unfriendly to the idea of rooming with an openly gay person.  Of course, Conway is only thinking about gay men here, lesbians aren’t even on his radar.   Many other opponents of repeal of DADT seem unanimous that the military needs more time to prepare and train active duty personnel for the open services of gay men and lesbians in order to assure a smooth transition.  If the track record on women’s service in the military (no matter their sexual orientation) is any indicator, these opponents may be right.  The military has done a horrendous job of preventing and prosecuting violence against female service members under the current regime, why should we think they’d do any better in addressing harassment and violence against lesbians and gay men?

The significant uptick in “MST” may tell us that some significant precincts of the U.S. military, bracing itself for and reacting to the integration of lesbians and gay men, has become more heterosexist and violent.  The “pretty macho young Americans” of whom Commandant Conway speaks are likely becoming more macho and less tolerant of threats to the military’s masculinity.  The handy thing about DADT is that it serves as a way of “vouching” for the heterosexuality of those who are currently serving in the military.  That’s the nifty flip side of barring lesbians and gay men from open military service.  The repeal of DADT means the revocation of this kind of sexual credential.

It seems likely that on the verge of a change in the U.S. military’s official sexual orientation, many in the institution are responding with a kind of exaggerated hetero-machismo that takes its largest toll on female members of the military in the form of increased sexual harassment, assault and violence.

While the time has surely come to repeal DADT, we should worry about what that repeal will hold for lesbians, and all women, who will serve in this new, “more equal,” military.  It may get worse.

Katherine Franke – cross-posted from Gender & Sexuality Law Blog

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2 Responses to It Gets Worse: What Repeal Of DADT May Mean For Sexual Violence In The Military

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  2. hardrivepolio says:

    Isn’t this already a problem? Women, including lesbians, are already permitted to serve in the military. As you note, many of them are targets of sexual violence. Lesbian women face additional persecution from DADT. They risk discharge if they are seen in public with their partners and face investigations to determine their sexual status. Even worse, they have a disincentive to report sexually-motivated crimes because doing so might get them kicked out of the military. DADT doesn’t provide very effective cover if people can still be suspected of being gay or involuntarily outed in the status quo. Gay people were prohibited from serving before DADT, but that didn’t do much to help Allen R. Schindler, Jr.

    I guess I just don’t see how allowing people to serve openly makes the problem worse. If anything, DADT covers up a much deeper problem and makes it more difficult to have an open discussion about how women and lesbians are treated in the military.

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