Young gay activists prepare to campaign against military's policy
Saturday, August 12, 2006
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- On paper, Haven Herrin seems to be an ideal candidate for military recruiters.
She can easily run five miles and was valedictorian of her college class. "Frankly, I'm exactly the kind of person the military says it wants," she said.
But when Herrin tried recently to sign up for the Minnesota National Guard, she was turned down because she told the recruiter she is a lesbian -- a revelation that tripped the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning openly gay service members.
Her admission was the opening round of a nationwide campaign against the 13-year-old policy by a group of young activists. In the next few months, gay men and women in their late teens and early 20s will attempt to enlist at recruiting offices in 30 cities. They will also disclose their sexual orientation.
If they are rebuffed, the activists plan to stage sit-ins at the offices, hoping to attract media coverage and support from a public they believe increasingly opposes the ban.
Organizers have dubbed the campaign Right to Serve. It was conceived by Herrin and Jacob Reitan, the 24-year-old young adult coordinator for the Virginia-based gay rights group called Soulforce.
The Pentagon's policy on gays is "as clear-cut an example of discrimination that you could find," Reitan said. "No one can deny it, and it's happening every day."
Don't ask, don't tell dates to 1993, during the first days of Bill Clinton's presidency. While running for the White House, Clinton vowed to overturn the military's long-standing ban on gays.
But, amid pressure from religious groups and concern from military leaders, he endorsed don't ask, don't tell. As passed by Congress and signed by Clinton, the policy requires gay service members to keep their homosexuality hidden and refrain from same-sex sexual conduct.
The military is prohibited from asking recruits about their sexual orientation, and commanders are limited in their ability to investigate rumors or allegations of homosexuality in the ranks.
Since the policy was adopted, more than 11,000 gay service members have been discharged, according to the Service Members Legal Defense Network, which is opposed to the policy.
Critics argue that in many cases military officials have violated its spirit, pursuing service members based on rumors or innuendo.
"Even service members who try to keep their end of the deal -- who 'don't tell' -- are being routinely subjected to malicious outings and investigations," said Steve Ralls, spokesman for the network. "The American people have a perception of don't ask, don't tell being true to its name, and in reality that's just not the case."
Even its supporters acknowledge that don't ask, don't tell isn't perfect.
"It's like what Churchill said about democracy -- it's the worst system possible, except for all the other ones," said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University who helped craft the policy and coined the phrase "don't ask, don't tell."
But, Moskos said, allowing openly gay service members would hurt the morale of the military rank-and-file and make many recruits uncomfortable.
"There are few situations in life where you're forced to live in intimate circumstances not of your choosing," Moskos said. "It just won't work. You will find people who feel their privacy rights are being violated. The gay advocates say it will cause enlistment to go up, but I think you'd find it dropping rather than rising."
The Right to Serve activists know they are in for a lengthy battle. President Bush supports don't ask, don't tell, and legislation in Congress to overturn it has few sponsors from the Republican majority.
All of the gay activists who try to enlist in the next few months are ready to serve, Reitan said. In many cases, they have wanted to join the military for years, but were unwilling to conceal their sexual orientation.
Shane Bagwell, a Philadelphia teen, took part in one of Right to Serve's first efforts to enlist gays. He was refused his lifelong goal of joining the Air Force.
Bagwell's grandfathers served in the Air Force and the Navy. He also has an uncle in the Navy and another who works at the Pentagon. His great-uncle served in World War I. "It's such an important part of my family," he said.
The gay activists hope such stories will attract public support.
"People need to know, these are their kids," Herrin said. "These are strong leaders who are intelligent, who have ethics and morals, who have nothing amiss with their lives. And they want to serve their country."
On the Net:
Right to Serve: http://www.righttoserve.org
Service Members Legal Defense Network: http://www.sldn.org/templates/index.html