The Gay Bar


The U.S. Army has long justified its exclusion of homosexuals as necessary to maintain military effectiveness. At the same time, however, it has implicitly acknowledged that this is a crock.

The case of former Sgt. Perry J. Watkins spotlights the Army's hypocrisy. In November, the Supreme Court let stand a 1989 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit allowing Watkins, an avowed homosexual, to return to the Army. Watkins joined the service in 1967 and was open about his sexual preference throughout his 14-year career. The Army nevertheless promoted him, gave him "secret" security clearance, and allowed him to re-enlist three times. By all accounts, Watkins was an excellent soldier; he received a perfect score on his most recent evaluation. His superiors have testified that his homosexuality was well known and caused no problems. Yet in 1982 the Army refused to let him re-enlist, citing his sexual preference.

In Watkins v. U.S. Army, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court initially found the Army's exclusion of gays unconstitutional on equal-protection grounds, but the full court later substituted a much narrower ruling. Even so, the case provides a compelling argument for the Army to reverse an unjust and irrational policy.

By retaining, praising, and rewarding soldiers such as Watkins, the Army tacitly admits that sexual orientation has no bearing on individual ability or performance. To exclude candidates on this basis therefore cheats taxpayers by impairing the Army's ability to field the best possible soldiers and defend the country effectively. Furthermore, it involves government in a debate in which it has no business. As the first Watkins decision notes, "the Army believes that its ban against homosexuals simply codifies society's moral consensus that homosexuality is evil."

The Army also presents practical arguments, however. It maintains that the presence of gays in the ranks fosters tension, undermines morale and discipline, creates security risks, hurts the Army's public image, and impedes its recruitment efforts. If so, we must choose between a perpetually shaky national defense, leaving the whole country at risk, and occasional unfairness to individuals such as Watkins.

But this is a false dilemma. The Army can regulate actual sexual conduct without regard to preference, which the rules now target. The experience of Watkins and other openly gay soldiers shows that homosexuals can command respect and get along with both subordinates and superiors, precisely because a soldier's professional abilities have nothing to do with his or her sexuality. Far from harming the Army's ability to attract new soldiers, Watkins's sterling record would be fitting material for a recruitment commercial. Moreover, the Army's current policy actually increases the potential for security breaches by encouraging homosexual soldiers to keep their orientation secret, leaving them vulnerable to blackmail.

The Army's appeal to the prejudices of others to justify its own invidious discrimination has a familiar ring to it. A government history of World War II explains that, before it became the nation's leading example of successful racial integration, the Army "took the position that it was operating within a social framework which it did not create and which it did not have the power to alter in any significant manner." The top brass argued that "experiments within the Army in the solution of social problems are fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline and morale." In this environmentally conscious age, it's nice to know that even excuses can be recycled.