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By Justin Shubow
New York, May 6, 2009 -- More than 40 Columbia Law School students gathered in Jerome Greene Hall last month to listen to a panel discussion of the controversial policy commonly known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The event was co-sponsored by the Solomon Amelioration Committee, Columbia Outlaws, and the Law School’s Military Association.
The 1993 federal law forbids openly gay or lesbian citizens from entering the armed forces or pursuing a military career. The “don't ask” part of the policy indicates that superiors should not initiate investigation of a service member's sexual orientation in the absence of disallowed behaviors, though mere suspicion of homosexual behavior can be cause for an investigation.
John Hely ’10 introduced the panel by emphasizing that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a law. “It’s more than just a military policy,” Hely said, adding that, as opposed to mere policy, the law cannot be easily changed. Hely, a self-described bisexual who served in Afghanistan as a Marine, said that the sponsors organized the discussion to balance the fact that the military recruits at the Law School, despite the discriminatory policy toward gays and lesbians. He said he wanted the panelists to go beyond the typical party-line rhetoric regarding the law, since “gay or straight, officer or enlisted, we all served in the military, and we all care about its future.”
Major Richard Meyer ’12 J.S.D, an Army lawyer who also teaches at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, spoke about his experiences and views. He stressed that the military is an organization strongly averse to change. “Whenever faced with the unknown, the military is institutionally nervous and fearful,” he explained.
He also noted that when it comes to effective mechanisms for change, the military responds far better to leadership from above than to external political pressure. “We aren’t an organization you want to push, but rather one that you want to drag,” he said. “When our leaders said to integrate racially, we did.”
Major Meyer said that those who oppose military recruiting at law schools because of “don’t ask, don’t tell” are “shortsighted and counterproductive.” He continued, explaining, “You don’t change the culture of the military by avoiding it. You change it from within.”
Panelist Tanya Domi, who teaches at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, rejected the notion that norms of military justice should somehow change with the times. “What’s right today was right in 1992 and in 1945,” she said. Not only is the law grossly unfair, according to Domi, it is also costly because it leads to discharging soldiers on whom the military has spent thousands of dollars training.
Domi, a former Army officer who took part in the 1993 Congressional hearings regarding the policy, added that, of all the studies funded by the military on gay soldiers since 1959, “not a single one ever found that gays and lesbians were detrimental to unit cohesion.”
She detailed her own story, which included being investigated by the Army in 1975 and 1987 for allegedly being a lesbian. In the first instance, Domi said, “I went to a gay bar for the first time in my life, and I was turned in by someone who was facing a drug charge.”
“It was never proven that I was gay,” she noted, but after the second investigation, she left the military. “I knew it was merely a matter of time, whether I had a relationship or not, before I would be railroaded out,” Domi explained. At the time, she had risen from being an unranked private to a commissioned officer. Domi had also been nominated to teach at West Point.
Agreeing with Major Meyer that the“don’t ask, don’t tell” law was fundamentally a political compromise, she noted a particular irony: “It was Barney Frank, one of the few openly gay people in Congress, who eventually cut a deal with President Clinton, and preempted our efforts [to allow homosexuals to serve openly].”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not only unjust towards gays and lesbians, Domi said, “It’s a terrible policy because it affects all women in the military.” She explained that at present, “Women are put in a very compromising position” when forced to respond to the sexual advances of male soldiers. “Either you’re a whore or a dyke,” Domi said. “How do you prove the negative?”
Brian Donnelly ’11, a former captain in the Marine Corps, focused on the controversy that erupted in 2007 when General Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed his personal opinion that homosexual behavior is immoral. Donnelly said that the general’s comment generated an overwhelming public backlash, which was “evidence that society is ready to move past ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Donnelly concluded that the policy “has outlived its relevance.”
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