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Nathaniel Frank Headshot

Will We Wait Until Another Gay Sailor Is Murdered?

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Last week a 29-year-old gay sailor was found shot to death at a guard shack at Camp Pendleton. The question that immediately rose to the minds of gay advocates who remember the anti-gay murder of Private First Class Barry Winchell exactly a decade ago, was whether Seaman August Provost was killed because he's gay.

While human rights activists have worked to ensure a full investigation, the Navy has downplayed the role of Provost's sexual orientation, saying there is "no evidence or information that suggests this is a hate crime" and that it has "no indication that there is any tie to what may or may not have been his sexuality."

To which it must be said: of course the Navy has no evidence about Provost's homosexuality or about what links that may have had to his death. The military does not allow the Navy to have evidence of either, under its "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the fate of which is now being debated in Washington.

Provost's death is Exhibit A for why this policy should end now. According to family members, Provost complained in the months leading up to this death of being harassed because he was gay, but he was unwilling to complain to authorities for fear that his own sexuality would come under suspicion and his job could be threatened.

Observers are wisely awaiting further details before concluding definitively that Provost's death was an anti-gay hate crime. But here's the rub: It doesn't matter. We already know that "don't ask, don't tell" causes anti-gay harassment. It does this not only in green-lighting anti-gay sentiment -- the law states that the presence of gays and lesbians is an "unacceptable risk" to the good order and discipline of the military, thereby declaring them a threat -- and not just by barring gays and lesbians from speaking up to challenge negative assumptions and stereotypes about them, but by discouraging victims of harassment or abuse from talking to commanders about the problem. If they do, they can be kicked out.

This is exactly what happened in the case of Barry Winchell. On July 5, 1999, Private Calvin Glover took a baseball bat to Winchell's bed, and bludgeoned him to death as he slept. The motive was revenge for losing to Winchell in a fist fight, in which he was derided by peers in the hypermasculine culture of the Army for having "his ass kicked by a faggot." When Winchell was pronounced dead, his skull had been cracked open, his eyes swollen shut, and his face beaten beyond recognition.

Winchell's murder was preventable. Winchell had been the target of daily anti-gay taunting for months leading up to his murder. He was denounced as a "queer," a "faggot" and a "homo," and was repeatedly threatened with violence. Yet Winchell told a confidant just before he was killed that he feared expulsion if he spoke up about his mistreatment. Subsequent investigations found that his base, Fort Campbell under the leadership of Major General Robert Clark, tolerated a climate of rampant anti-gay harassment and poor leadership. Then-president George Bush felt Clark was doing a heckuva job and rewarded his leadership vacuum with a promotion to the Army's third-highest rank.

The evidence that the current policy exacerbates anti-gay harassment is clear. When "don't ask, don't tell" began in 1994, reports of anti-gay harassment shot up; they
targeted not only gays but straights -- often women who did not conform to male expectations of proper gender behavior, or who rebuffed or complained about unwanted male attention. Notably, when the gay ban was lifted in Canada, reports of harassment against women dropped by roughly half. Even Charles Moskos, the chief academic architect of "don't ask, don't tell" co-authored an article after Winchell's murder explaining that gay troops "fear reporting harassment and assaults" because their jobs will be put at risk, and that the results of his own policy were "insidious." The policy has also kept gays from reporting and testifying against murder suspects because doing so would involve revealing their sexuality. So the gay ban blocks the prosecution of heinous crimes that affect more than just gays and lesbians.

Of course, some people will say that the evidence of anti-gay harassment in the military is exactly the reason not to lift the ban. They say this shows the military is not ready and cannot handle gays in their midst. Time Magazine, for instance, writes that Provost's death "has raised new questions over the readiness of the armed forces to accept openly homosexual personnel."

Nonsense. Everyone knows gays are already there -- and they're already serving openly, just not, in most cases, open to the military bureaucracy. Three quarters of service members say they're "personally comfortable" around gays, and two thirds say they know or suspect gays in their unit. More to the point, driving harassment underground is the worst possible thing you can do in cases like these. Lifting the ban would allow those who are threatened by anti-gay harassment to confront their perpetrator or inform authorities without fear of retribution. And it would let witnesses and friends speak up too, a critical means in any community of enforcing the rules.

It's circular logic at its best to say we shouldn't treat gays equally because the military doesn't treat gays equally. And it's an even sorrier excuse for leadership to hear from our nation's moral watchdogs that equal treatment should be expected to result in violence. This is just what former Senator Sam Nunn did in 1993 when he said that lifting the ban would create "very emotional feelings" and that if things changed too quickly, "I fear for the lives of people in the military themselves." Conservative Christian groups joined him in opposing openly gay service by saying that straight soldiers would "avoid, stigmatize and harass soldiers whose 'gayness' is revealed." "Leadership" like this can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, leading to the very results that are feared, especially in the military, which is a hierarchical institution where the climate is set from the top.

We don't yet know the circumstances of Provost's death. But is there any sense at all in waiting until another service member is murdered before something is done to end this madness?

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