Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Liberal Militarist Diversion

By Sean Dinces

DADT illustration

Illustration: John Isaacson

On May 27, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the latest military spending bill that would lift the ban on gays in the U.S. military and effectively end the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which stipulates that a soldier must be discharged if he or she admits to participating in homosexual acts. But former Army Lieutenant Daniel Choi, the poster boy of the movement to repeal the ban, is not satisfied. Choi is a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran who was discharged from the Army after coming out on the Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009. He recently completed a weeklong hunger strike in protest of the amendment’s stipulation that the military conduct an internal review of DADT before the repeal is allowed to take effect. Choi and company are demanding that President Obama take action to implement a more immediate repeal of DADT, asserting that the review process is an affront to the dignity of lesbians and gays serving in the U.S. armed forces.

I’m willing to jump on the bandwagon in support of DADT’s repeal inasmuch as it represents legal protection for the LGBTQ community in a labor environment that has been, and continues to be, extremely hostile to any non-heteronormative behavior. However, Choi and the movement he represents are allowing the current administration to divert attention away from the ongoing failure to pass meaningful legislation in support of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights and the continued escalation of U.S. imperialism. The relationship between the anti-DADT movement and the absence of LGBT legislation has been illuminated by Ethan Weinstock (WIN, spring 2010). He argues that Obama and the Democratic Party have emphasized their support of a repeal in order to recover political capital lost through repeated failures to push through legislation such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would officially ban workplace discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. (The act has been introduced in Congress each year since 1994 and has yet to pass.)

What remains unaddressed by critics like Weinstock is the direct link between the rhetoric of the movement in favor of the repeal of DADT and the intensification of U.S. military involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Even a brief consideration of the claims made by Choi and his fellow activists makes it clear that the campaign in favor of the repeal depends on an uncritical acceptance of U.S. militarism and military culture. Take, for example, a recent video of Choi and fellow “resister” Jim Pietrangelo speaking outside the Superior Court of Washington, D.C., after being arraigned for handcuffing themselves to the White House gates on March 18. Choi repeatedly refers to himself and other lesbians and gays in the military as “oppressed,” “trapped,” and metaphorically “handcuffed and fettered.”

However, what you will not hear in the statements by Choi is any reference to the oppression of foreign civilian populations at the hands of U.S. soldiers like himself. In fact, Choi has openly expressed his desire to redeploy to Iraq if reinstated in the Army. His claim to “want to continue to serve [his] country because of everything it stands for,” combined with the outpouring of support he and other DADT “resisters” have received from the LGBT community, demonstrates that the anti-DADT movement is invested in a form of civil rights activism based squarely on a tolerance for the repression and terrorization of less visible “others.”

Fighting a “Progressive” War

By opposing DADT as an “immoral” policy that encourages the toleration of “deception and lying” (Choi’s words) at the same time that they avoid questioning the legitimacy of Obama’s continuation and escalation of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Choi and company take the burden off U.S. progressives to speak out against the horrifying effects of American imperial machinery abroad and at home. Within this rhetorical framework, Choi can openly criticize worrisome statistics about suicide among LGBT soldiers while passing over the immense psychological, social, and physical trauma inflicted upon local populations by U.S. forces deployed abroad, not to mention the well-documented psychological anguish experienced by thousands of American soldiers—gay and straight—who have returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Choi’s liberal allies feel righteous about their support of a new identity politics within the military while silently assenting to military occupations in which the murder of civilians and children is a regular occurrence. By joining their ranks, Obama veils his war presidency under the progressive banner of gay rights.

Moreover, the notion that the repeal of DADT somehow represents the beginning of a new regime of sexual and gender politics within the military is, at best, questionable. Sue Fulton, a lesbian veteran and member (along with Choi) of a group of LGBT West Point graduates called Knights Out, recently stated that the repeal represents a direct challenge to “a mindset that sees courage and strength as essentially and exclusively masculine, heterosexual traits.” Fulton and her compatriots miss the point here. It does not constitute progress to simply include the LGBT community in a heteronormative and hyper-masculine organization that is implicated regularly in indiscriminate violence and the violation of human rights. Many lesbians and gays who have served in the closet have been entirely complicit in the toxic culture that engenders the military’s brutalization and dehumanization of foreign “enemies.” Their mere presence in the military—in or out of the closet—in no way guarantees a change in this state of affairs.

In other words, activists like Fulton ignore the fact that not all institutions are alike, and that the military is an institution that, when compared to others, has proven far more resistant to cultural and political transformation despite the long-running inclusion of women and people of color. (We need look no further than recent statistics on sexual assault in the military to confirm this.) Furthermore, they fail to acknowledge that being part of the LGBT community doesn’t correspond intrinsically to progressive sexual or gender politics. This is apparent from those lesbians and gays, along with Fulton and Choi, who believe that the U.S. military is a righteous and just institution apart from its homophobia.

Without a critique of the connections between the military’s sexist and homophobic culture and the suffering of those submitted to U.S. military occupation, the anti-DADT campaign is little more than a useful smokescreen for Obama and his liberal apologists. Clearly, they have no qualms with shoring up U.S. imperial thuggery, as long as it’s done under the guise of liberal inclusion.

Sean Dinces (sdinces [at] gmail [dot] com (sdinces [at] is a veteran and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He is currently a doctoral student in American Studies at Brown University.