What a strange week for gays in the military. Earlier this week, Huffington Post reported that an official, recently-revised military document now suggests that homosexuality is a "defect".
Strangely, some observers, including leaders in the gay-rights community, said that the designation was "no big deal". Then, this morning, Senator John McCain told ABC News This Week anchor George Stephanopoulos homosexuality is not, after all, a defect.
What is going on?
First the background: The offending document is Department of Defense
Instruction 1332.38, "Physical Disability Evaluation". Its purpose is to
help military administrators figure out how to compensate troops who
separate from the armed forces, and who request compensation for injuries
they suffered in uniform.
The military wants to be sure that some conditions, such as bed-wetting
and certain mental disorders, cannot form the basis of a petition for
compensation. Until this summer, homosexuality was included on the
document's list of mental disorders.
When the matter was brought to the attention of the media, however, an
uproar forced the Pentagon to make changes. The revised document no
longer lists homosexuality as a mental disorder, suggesting instead that
it is a "condition, circumstance or defect." Then, this past week,
Congressman Marty Meehan wrote to the Defense Department requesting that
the military revise the document...again.
Some gay rights groups don't think that the matter is very important.
And in a sense, they're right. According to this perspective, the focus
must be on more central issues, in particular "don't ask, don't tell"
(DADT), the law which requires the military to fire anyone found out to be
There's another way of seeing things, however.
In particular, a large body of legal theory discusses what it means when
laws and regulations designate some groups as normal and others as
deserving of stigma. This is not just a question of hurt feelings, but
rather one of legal precedent. If homosexuality is classified as a defect
in one official document, what is to stop a mean-spirited legislator from
trying to amplify the standard to other policies and laws?
DADT will, of course, remain the target of gay rights activists who work
on military matters. And Senator McCain will remain one of the toughest
opponents in the struggle for repeal.
But it is good to know that, at very least, the Senator agrees that
homosexuality is not a defect.
Follow Aaron Belkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/aaronbelkin