The Beginning of a Long Road

In June 1948, President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act.

In July 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which began the efforts to desegregate the armed forces.

On Saturday, December 18, 2010, we achieved Congressional repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In the midst of all the cheers and good hopes for the future, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these three major changes together. I’ve also thought about how the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell means I get to revise my dissertation conclusion, and probably need to spend a little time thinking about the broader implications of the repeal in light of my conclusions. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking that this is only the beginning of a very long journey.

In recent months, I’ve seen a lot of commentary here and there about the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the parallels to racial integration in the military. There’s not a lot about how Don’t Ask Don’t Tell parallels the military’s first sexual integration efforts, however, probably because not very many people have ever heard of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. Of course, everyone knows women are in the military, and most Americans can probably bring up two of the “big” issues surrounding women in the armed forces – combat, women’s families – but our historical memory of women in the military tends to jump from World War II to the 1970s (except, of course, for brief flirtations with the nurses of M*A*S*H).

In the past few weeks, I devoured literature on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as I began work on revisions to Chapter 1 of my dissertation, which focuses on the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. Thematically, there are some underlying issues between the two legislation pieces, so the reading proved helpful in many ways – even if you wouldn’t necessarily connect them at first glance. One of the documents I spent time with was the 1993 RAND study conducted when President Clinton decided to explore the possibilities of repealing the ban on gay and lesbian service members.

There’s this fascinating chapter in the study that analyzes the military’s racial integration efforts as a way to think about what might happen with ending the ban on homosexuality in the military. But you won’t find much about the connections between the integration of women and the possibility of ending the ban on homosexuality in the military. In contrast, the authors state early in that chapter that it’s not really appropriate to look to the military’s integration of women as a parallel, in part because policy related to women’s integration “has been ambiguous”.*

The authors go on to point out that as of 1993, women continued to be “set apart” from men – in my own words, I’d say segregated – primarily because of combat restrictions. “If it were contemplated that homosexuals would be set apart in separate living quarters and restricted from critical jobs, then the experience of women might be instructive. However, if the purpose is to fully end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, then the experience with racial integration is more analogous.”**

If you haven’t heard much about sexual integration and the armed forces as a corollary to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I suspect it’s because many people would agree with this report’s conclusions. Even 17 years later, I’d argue that sexual integration isn’t complete – and that there are still problems.

This is not news to anyone who has half an eye on current media regarding the military, of course, but it is something that I think many people don’t think about. Do I think the parallel of racial integration and ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has merit? Yes, I do. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the military’s racial integration efforts. While imperfect, racial integration worked well in many ways. The emphasis was on changing behaviors, not beliefs, and this became key to enforcing racial integration processes.

And yet, you can get rid of policies, speak of equality and opportunity, and still have problems – as the racial integration process also shows. Perhaps the biggest lesson from racial integration should be that integration is not achieved just because someone says it is. The military is a large, complex institution with many layers of hierarchy built in. There are many levels of power where many individuals can abuse the system and get away with it, no matter what official policy might be.

Yes, looking to the military’s racial integration successes (and shortcomings) is important for ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and moving forward. But I think it’s a big mistake to focus on racial integration and exclude sexual integration. In fact, I’d argue that it’s paramount for the armed forces to take a good, long, serious look at its history of sexual integration efforts, success, and – above all – limitations.

Sexual integration has been happening for more than 60 years in the military, and this weekend, the armed forces turned to face another development in that process. There’s a long road ahead, and I suspect we’ll see a lot of challenges along the way that come in the form of prejudice and discrimination.

Now is the time, more than ever, for the military to come to grips with sex.

*Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment, National Defense Research Institute (U.S.), Rand Corporation, 1993 (page 158).

**Ibid (page 159).



3 thoughts on “The Beginning of a Long Road

  1. This is really interesting, Tanya–thanks! Along these lines, I was struck by this paragraph from one of today’s NYT pieces:

    “Coming from a combat unit, I know that in Afghanistan we’re packed in a sardine can,” said Cpl. Trevor Colbath, 22, a Pendleton-based Marine who returned from Afghanistan in August. “There’s no doubt in my mind that openly gay Marines can serve, it’s just different in a combat unit. Maybe they should just take the same route they take with females and stick them to noncombat units.”

    • Wow, the stupidity didn’t take long to emerge, did it! Thanks for the link – I’m going to have to check that out (although it may lead to many headaches from banging my head against the desk…)

  2. Pingback: Roundup: historians react to DADT repeal « Brian J. Distelberg

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