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(Another) Ugly Underside of the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

December 22, 2012

Today, the Human Rights Campaign celebrated the two-year anniversary of President Obama signing the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a move that officially allowed lesbians, gays, and bisexuals to serve openly in the United States military. Soon after, I wrote a blog post suggesting that, while the policy was definitely an improvement on a military that forced people to hide their sexual identities, it obscured both the continued dominance of militarized masculinities in the American military and the continued linkage between militarism and full citizenship.

In the afterglow of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” people with expressed homosexual sexual preference now have the right to serve in the US military, and do not have to hide their sexual preference. Many have celebrated the advantages of the new policy, including for recruitment, retention, and morale. Studies quote Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as saying that “the military has kind of moved beyond it,” no longer either forcing gay soldiers to hide or discriminating against them.

Even were that true, the jubilation over the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the liberal community has obscured the fact that there are still people who have to hide who they are or risk discharge, who are forced to constantly deny their identities for membership in the military. While the military no longer formally excludes people who aren’t straight, it continues to formally exclude people who aren’t cis-.

As I noted before, being cisgender or cissexual is having your sex identity match the sex that you were assigned at birth, while being transgender or transexual is having a sex identity that conflicts with or confounds the sex that you were assigned at birth. When the United States military lifted the ban on homosexuals, it did not automatically permit trans- people to participate in the military. In fact, the exclusion of trans- people from the military sometimes happened under the rubric of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but a formal ban on trans- people exists outside of the military’s policy on homosexuality.

That ban is medical. The United States military excludes trans- people from serving because it sees them as having a Gender Identity Disorder (GID), which continues to be classified by the American Psychological Association as a mental disorder. It is a mental disorder that the military identifies a medically disqualifying condition. It also excludes so-called “post-op” trans- persons are often excluded both on that ground and on the grounds that they have had too major an operation to medically qualify to serve. As a result, in the words of one blogger, the gay movement has “moved on” to issues of marriage and partner benefits, the trans- community still find themselves “living under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” conditions many of us thought no longer existed.” Not only are trans- people formally excluded from service if identified, but they are considered sick for their sex identity.

Hiding is often only the tip of the iceberg for trans- people in the United States military, and other difficulties include sexual harassment and abuse, denial of necessary health care, questions about body abnormalities, and both heteronormative and homonormative expectations about gender roles, gender performances, and gender presentations. As we celebrate the formal repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” then, it seems important to remember that there are people who remain silenced and abused within the military for their sex or gender identity, and who must hide and repress their identities. It is important, in my mind, to talk about the benefits of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but at the same time to acknowledge that celebration can tend to obscure and attract attention away from remaining issues like the military’s continuing cissexism and the people it excludes.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.