RECENTLY, the Pentagon published the disturbing, if not unexpected, results of a survey on the climate towards homosexuals in the military. The study, which covered 39 bases and 11 vessels, revealed not only widespread hostility towards gays but also a troubling tolerance of that attitude by officers. A problem of this kind clearly requires a response. Unfortunately, the political nature of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy will hamstring the Pentagon's response.
Last summer, a private at Fort Campbell, Ky. murdered a gay fellow soldier. In the aftermath of the widely publicized incident, the Pentagon decided to investigate the implementation and success of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy among the servicemen. The results revealed a deep problem.
Of the 71,000 service members surveyed, 80 percent said they had heard offensive or derogatory remarks aimed at gays, and 85 percent believed that other service members tolerated such comments. Around 37 percent said they had witnessed or experienced an event of harassment due to a servicemember's perceived sexual orientation. Five percent believed that the chain of command tolerated such behavior. While most incidents of harassment were verbal, physical assault, career limitation and vandalism each accounted for about 9 percent.
According to the report, most harassment came from co-workers. Disturbingly, however, the study found that immediate superiors perpetrated more than 10 percent of incidents.
Some groups have responded that even the Pentagon report did not express the situation adequately. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund charged that the survey was inaccurate because some soldiers could not respond without exposing their sexuality and violating the policy.
The reports disagree to the extent of the problem, but only in the most minor way. In both cases, the numbers don't lie: Anti-gay sentiment in the military is pervasive and occasionally escalates into violence. That must be ended.
The nature of the problem suggests some obvious solutions. When incidents of harassment are reported, they must be pursued and the perpetrators disciplined. The Pentagon should take steps to ensure that servicemen whose sexuality is discovered as part of the course of such an investigation are not kicked out. Fear of being outed as part of an investigation prevents many reports.
More importantly, those who violate the policy by investigating a soldier's sexual orientation must be punished. The "Don't ask, don't tell" policy is meant to work two ways. So far it has only been enforced in one. If gay soldiers cannot be open about their sexuality, then officers and other soldiers cannot pursue the question. The utter failure of the military to enforce "Don't ask" ensures that the climate of harassment will continue.
The key, however, is enforcement of the policy by and among the officers. Misbehavior among the enlisted men is a black mark on the military, but disobedience by the officers is intolerable. Officers are always expected to set the example for enlisted men. Enforcement and education should be strictest among officers. If they don't make an effort to improve the climate in their units, there will be no change.
These responses, however, face a problem due to the political nature of the policy. Because it is a campaign issue, the future of the policy will be in question following the election this November. Vice President Al Gore has promised to push for a more open military policy, while Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) has voiced his support for the current policy. If the future of the policy is not certain, it will be difficult to formulate an effective response to the problem.
The military climate towards homosexuality must improve. Not only gays but also straight soldiers suspected of being gay have felt ill effects from the widespread hostility in the armed services. Some obvious responses can be implemented immediately. Others, however, must wait on the next administration, diminishing the effectiveness of any changes.
(Sparky Clarkson's column normally appears Tuesdays in the Cavalier Daily.)