Gays in military still suffering silently

Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000

After the Pentagon released a survey in March confirming an alarmingly high rate of anti-gay harassment in the military, Secretary of Defense William Cohen formed a group to propose steps for reducing harassment. As the group prepares to make its recommendations this week, its members should address the crux of the problem: that gay and lesbian service members cannot report harassment or assaults without risking expulsion from the military.

And if implacable foes like us - the author of ``Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' and the co-founder of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which fights ``Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' - can find common ground on this issue, anyone can.

Gay and lesbian service members fear reporting harassment and assaults because many military doctors, psychologists, inspectors general and law enforcement officials erroneously believe ``Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' requires them to turn in gays who seek their help.

The Defense Department considered the issue of health care providers in an April 1998 report and conceded there is, in fact, no duty to turn in gay patients, yet top Pentagon officials have failed to so inform providers in the field. Service members have indeed been discharged, based on confidences they shared with health care providers.

Recently, the inspector general reviewing the climate at Fort Campbell, Ky., after Pvt. Barry Winchell was harassed and murdered there said he was required to turn in service members who were discovered to be gay in the course of investigating harassment against them. Unsurprisingly, given this practice, gay and lesbian soldiers don't feel safe enough to speak with inspectors general.

The consequences are insidious. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network has helped many military members who have been harassed and assaulted but haven't reported the incidents because they were unable to endure the added trauma of being outed, investigated and discharged. Adding insult to injury, gay and lesbian service members can't seek medical treatment for physical injuries, post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression and other common results of harassment and assaults without the threat of being outed to their commands and discharged.

Military members who reveal their sexual orientation during private medical treatment, or in the course of reporting harassment or assaults, are not ``telling'' in a manner contemplated by ``Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue.'' The Department of Defense must order inspectors general, law enforcement officials, psychologists and doctors not to out gay service members who seek their help. It should forbid military judges and members of discharge boards from considering statements from these officials as evidence of homosexuality.

Regardless of whether you support ``Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'' there's no denying that harassment and violence are an unjust return to the men and women who serve our country. Recent positive steps, such as training on ``Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue'' and the formation of the Pentagon working group, will be viewed as meaningless if ``Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' is used to foreclose avenues of recourse normally available to service members. Other remedies may symbolize leaders' commitment to change, but until Pentagon leaders permit gay and lesbian service members to safely report harassment and assaults, the violence will not end.

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