Killing DADT Is the Honorable Thing

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Aubrey Sarvis Former Executive Director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

What do Turkey and the United States have in common? Well, they are both original signatories to the NATO treaty. But they share something else. The United States and Turkey stand alone among the original signatories to that treaty in banning gay men and women from serving openly in their militaries.

In Turkey and in the United States the official stance towards homosexuality is to be ashamed of it, or afraid of it, or both. Otherwise, why would the United States have a federal law that says it's okay to be gay in the military if you tell no one, do nothing, and keep that closet door firmly shut. In other words, if you're gay pretend you're not. Stay ashamed and stay quiet.

The difference is that parts of Turkey, which didn't exist as a nation until 1923, after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the war for independence that followed, remain rooted in a tribalism whose values clash with what we like to think of as the values of the modern world. The founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, was an admirer of the Enlightenment and fought until his death in 1938 to turn Turkey into a modern, democratic, and secular nation-state. It has been a long and still only partially successful struggle.

It would not please Ataturk to know that "honor killings" still exist in his country. The New York Times reported last week that one took place 16 months ago in Istanbul. Prosecutors say a father from a wealthy Kurdish family in southeastern Turkey traveled more than six hundred miles from his village to hunt down his only son at his apartment building in Istanbul and to fire five shots into the young man as he was going out for ice cream. The son was gay, the honor of the family was therefore sullied. To restore the family's honor, a male member of the family must kill him. It's the honorable thing to do, even though his parents were said to adore their son.

This is the first reported honor killing of a gay man in Turkey. That fate is usually reserved for women in the family for looking at a boy the "wrong" way, for having sex with another man inside or outside of marriage. Dan Bilefsky reported in the Times last week that a recent government survey estimates that one person in Istanbul dies every week as a result of honor killings. The United Nations says that globally such killings claim five thousand lives each year. It is not known how many go unpunished. In Turkey, if the crime becomes known the punishment is life imprisonment. The father of the young man, who was a straight-A physics student, is being tried in absentia. He is believed to be hiding in northern Iraq.

A Turkish sociologist who studies honor killings noted that "tribal Kurdish families that kill daughters perceived to have dishonored them publicize the murders to help cleanse their shame." The sociologist told Bilefsky that "gay honor killings remained underground because a homosexual not only brought shame to his family, but also tainted the concept of male identity upon which the community's social structure depended."

"Until now," the sociologist said, "gay honor killings have been invisible because homosexuality is taboo."

I am not aware of honor killings in the United States, although men and women in and out of the military have been killed because they are perceived to be gay, lesbian, or transgendered. Still, there is an unsettling parallel between Turkey and the United States in their attitudes toward gays in the military: they don't exist.

Now everyone knows that we do in fact exist, that some of us have been or are in the military, and some are serving openly. So why the ban? Shame, fear, ignorance, a military culture of chest-thumping machismo, a misplaced sense of honor. How else can we explain why sixteen years ago our own government passed a law requiring gays and lesbians in effect to go underground to serve their country? All those who wear the uniform must be prepared to give up their lives if necessary to preserve the freedom of their fellow citizens to be themselves--but if they are gay the country they are fighting for does not allow them the freedom to be themselves.

That is what is shameful. That is what is truly disgraceful and dishonorable. In the United States we need to distinguish ourselves from countries, like our NATO ally Turkey, who continue officially to regard homosexuality as shameful. As do we. Shame and ignorance and fear lie at the root of our discriminatory policy of "don't ask, don't tell," just as in Turkey.

Twenty-seven other countries now welcome gays and lesbians into their armed forces. This week President Obama is asking some of those countries--Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Canada--to stick with us in Afghanistan. Does anyone care if the soldier or Marine beside you who is trying to protect you is of a different sexual orientation than your own? Do you care if the Navy Seal who saved your life is gay or straight? I don't think so, and I think that has been documented time and again. Good order, discipline, unit cohesion, and morale depend on strong leadership and a clear mission, not on anyone's sexual orientation.

Someone has to take command of getting "don't ask, don't tell" off the books. Ultimately, President Obama is the leader, but only Congress can repeal the law that Congress enacted. They might finally do it if President Obama includes repeal of DADT in the Defense budget he sends to Congress early next year.

The President can and should do just that.