What Can Stop the Gay-Bashing in the Military?

Petty Officer Third Class Joseph Rocha was brutalized for more than two years at his base in Bahrain after his refusal to hire a prostitute raised suspicions that he was gay. This is not an academic debate.
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The Associated Press reported today that another gay service member was abused by the military across several years of service to his country. Petty Officer Third Class Joseph Rocha, a sailor trained to work with military dogs in the Navy's anti-terrorism, force protection, and explosive detection operations, was brutalized for more than two years at his base in Bahrain after his refusal to hire a prostitute raised suspicions that he was gay. The abuse included hog-tying Rocha to a chair and pushing him, bound, into a dog kennel full of feces, as well as humiliating him by repeatedly forcing him to simulate oral sex with another man while being videotaped.

Rocha told me that, while hazing was common in his unit, the activities he was forced to do were a direct result of the perception that he was gay, including being told by his military leadership, on videotape, to act more effeminate, speak with a higher voice, appear more "queer," and make his sounds and gestures more realistic (one begins to wonder at how "straights" in the Navy get their thrills). He said it was the "most disgusting, degrading thing that I've ever been made to do."

The military is a big place, and there are always bad apples in any large institution. Could that be the source of the abuse suffered by Rocha? In the aftermath of other abuse scandals such as Tailhook, the military eventually called for heads to roll, if only to perform accountability to the rest of society. It was a gesture meant to convey that the military understood and agreed that the behavior was unacceptable.

But Rocha's case is not about bad apples. The military doesn't even think that what happened was wrong. In fact, the military leader who oversaw and perpetrated these acts against Rocha, Chief Petty Officer Michael Toussaint, was promoted to Senior Chief following the incident, even though the military was fully aware of all that happened. Toussaint was implicated in other incidents as well, including handcuffing a female sailor to a bed and forcing her to simulate lesbian sex with another woman, also while on video. One of the women later committed suicide.

Now that the incident is getting some press, however, and following the letter by Rep. Sestak, the Navy is doing a different dance, telling the AP that these incidents "do not reflect who we are as a Navy." Cmdr. Cappy Surette assures us that, "The Navy is now looking into the handling of this situation more carefully." Now, that is, that it's been caught.

Some say that episodes of anti-gay harassment like this one are exactly the reason not to lift the ban. They say this shows the military is not ready to handle gays in their midst. But this is nonsense. Everyone knows gays are already there, and can't ever be fully kept out. They have been not just serving for centuries but are increasingly serving with the full knowledge of their peers. Two thirds of deployed service members say they know or suspect gays in their unit, and three quarters say they're "personally comfortable" around gays, notwithstanding the illusion of fierce military resistance that conservatives try to whip up around this issue.

More to the point, driving harassment underground by forcing gays into the closet is the worst possible option. Lifting the ban would allow those who are threatened by anti-gay harassment to confront their perpetrator or inform authorities without fear of retribution. Research shows clearly that writing discrimination into law or policy encourages the kind of misbehavior that Roche and others have now, predictably, endured.

"Don't ask, don't tell" singles out gay people as an "unacceptable risk" to the military. It is especially insidious because it makes gay people eligible to serve while simultaneously calling them a threat. It says to heterosexuals, "Gays are serving with you but they are a danger to your mission." It's no wonder many are used as a punching bag.

What is the answer? Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran and former professor at West Point, is spearheading the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in Congress. This is a brave mission for a young, Catholic, heterosexual representing a moderate district in Pennsylvania. But the effort will not succeed overnight. President Obama, however, has the power, through a 1983 "stop-loss" statute passed by Congress, to halt all discharges immediately by executive order, giving Congress time to debate the issue. As his political capital flies out the door in an all-out effort to reform health care, the likelihood that Congress will end "don't ask, don't tell" before the 2010 mid-term elections is quickly plummeting.

This is not an academic debate, and the lives of people like Joseph Rocha should not be held hostage to politics. The cleanest, quickest way to lift the ban and protect all our service members and their national security mission, is for the commander-in-chief to lead the way.

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