A few weeks ago I posted about the ongoing problem with sexual assault against female service members. The issue represents but one of the hurdles facing women who take it upon themselves to serve and sacrifice for our country. The controversial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, for instance, has a much larger negative impact on female service members than male, and serves to maintain sexism found in every level of the armed forces.
Although women made up only 15% of the armed forces in 2008, 34% of service members discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) were women. This dynamic varies greatly between the various branches of service. For instance, women make up only 20% of members in the air force, yet made up 62% of Air Force discharges under DADT (2008).
While DADT has a larger impact on gay women than gay men, the policy actually has a negative impact on all servicewomen, regardless of sexual orientation. “Lesbian baiting,” “the practice of pressuring women for sex and sexually harassing women by using the threat of calling then lesbians as a means of intimidation,” is common in all levels of the military.
This harassment reflects the attitude that women do not belong in the military, which is perhaps an even more widespread opinion than the opinion that homosexuals do not belong. One must wonder if the policy is simply an effective way for the military to maintain the status-quo when it comes to discrimination against women. Consider these statistics:
- 58-79% of the American public believes that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military.
- A 2006 survey of members who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars found that almost 75% are personally comfortable interacting with gays and lesbians.
- A majority of junior enlisted members believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military.
Despite these attitudes, the struggle to overturn DADT has been an uphill battle, leading one to wonder the true motivation of those who want to keep it in place.
What living in the closet means for service members:
- DADT prevents domestic partnerships from being recognized; therefore, service members cannot list their partner as “next of kin.” Life insurance cannot be given to partners of LGBT service members. Imagine what this means for service members in active duty.
- Partners of service members are banned from receiving health benefits, housing subsidies, and family support services.
- LGBT service members are prevented from talking openly about their sexuality.
- LGBT service members live in constant fear of having their orientation exposed.
- LGBT service members may hesitate or put off seeking medical attention for fear of having their orientation exposed.
- Those suspected of “homosexual conduct” risk having their masculinity or femininity challenged, a very intimidating dynamic in the military context.
- LGBT service members cannot show affection to their partner in public.
- LGBT service members cannot take time off to care for spouse if necessary.
So what is being done?
In my last post about service women I highlighted the wonderful work that the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) is doing to address the issues facing female members of the military. DADT is one of the primary advocacy issues that SWAN focuses on. Their current work on DADT includes:
- Working to educate policy makers about the negative impacts of DADT.
- Running a helpline for LGBT service women, staffed exclusively by veteran women caseworkers.
- A speakers bureau that allows staff members, clients, affiliates to speak about DADT.
I recently spoke with SWAN and was informed that they are in the process of establishing further support services for gay service women and veterans. While initially their plan was to establish in-person support groups in large cities, they have found that there is a real need for such services to reach deployed service women who are unable to attend the meetings. Therefore, the organization is currently exploring how social media can be used as a means of communication for such women.
To find out more about how Don’t Ask Don’t Tell impacts the lives and work of service women click here.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics have been taken from SWAN fact sheets.
Janice is a Virtual Assistant, aspiring doula, and long-time feminist activist with a passion for women's history, nonfiction, nature, and wearing flowers in her hair. She is the Founder of The Feminist's Guide, a women's history travel website, which can be found at www.thefeministguide.com.