For gays serving in the U.S. military the fear of exposure exists at every level of the chain of command. Just ask Dr. Alan Steinman. In the early Nineties, Steinman served the four final years of a 25-year career as a rear admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard as its director of health and safety -- the position in that branch of the Armed Forces equivalent to the Surgeon General. He retired honorably in 1997, having kept his sexual orientation a secret. It wasn't till December 2003, on the 10th anniversary of the "don't ask, don't tell" legislation, that Steinman made his dramatic announcement, along with two retired U.S. Army generals.
Steinman, who today runs his own maritime consulting practice in Washington state, remains the highest-ranking military official to identify as gay. This afternoon he said he was "gratified" to hear Pentagon officials acknowledge the discriminatory nature of the policy and to eradicate it once and for all. The Juice interview with Steinman, after the jump.
There are over 100,000 active-duty military personnel in Florida, 4,500 of whom belong to the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a particularly visible presence in this region. Sheer demographics suggest that among that population of service men and women, many are gay. But they have remained on duty only because they have succeeded in concealing their identity.
"The law prohibits any hint -- let alone an overt declaration -- of being gay," Steinman says. So it's not merely a matter of avoiding mention of one's homosexuality at the military recruiting office. Rather, obeying the law requires vigilance long after one is accepted into the military. In this way, it's different than a host of other rules of conduct, where the penalties are triggered by an act. Homosexuality is treated like a thought crime.
"It's not misconduct," Steinman says. "It's the assumption that you'll engage in misconduct -- that's enough to get you kicked out of the military."
So for gays in the military, it's a risk to display a picture of one's same-sex partner. It's a risk to go to gay bars even when off-duty. And it's definitely risk to engage in homosexual acts. "The law allows gays to serve in the military," says Steinman. "But in order to serve, gays have to be silent, celibate and invisible."
But even for gays who despite those draconian restrictions still enjoy their work in the military and who want to make a career out of it, the question is whether it's worth the risk, considering they could be kicked out the moment they're found out. A military spread thin by the global demands of the War Against Terrorism, needs every soldier it can get -- especially those who've received expensive training with American' tax dollars. Instead, says Steinman, those gay members of the military have every reason to leave, as thousands do every year.
For Steinman and other advocates, this week has been a case of deja vu, as social conservatives have lobbed arguments similar to the ones that occurred early in the Clinton administration: that gay soldiers would ruin morale and degrade combat readiness. But Steinman cites this Zogby poll of service men and women who overwhelmingly report that there is of a gay member of their unit -- or one who they suspect is gay -- but that it has no effect on their morale or performance.
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Judging by recent Senate committee testimony, don't ask, don't tell will fade away slowly over the course of the next year. More slowly than gay rights activists and social progressive former military like Steinman had hoped following Barack Obama's presidential victory. In the meantime, advocates of the law's repeal will have to stay on message, lest their opponents persuade voters that gays are demanding special treatment.
"Getting rid of don't ask, don't tell would simply allow all service members to serve under the exact same rules and regulations with regard to speech and conduct," says Steinman.
Here's a presentation that Steinman made last April at the Harvard Divinity School last year.