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For all intents and purposes, the study had the makings of a bombshell. Servicemembers United, the nation’s first organization devoted to gay and lesbian troops, had pored over years of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discharge data and issued a press release indicating the startling facts: minority gay and lesbian service members were being discharged at a rate disproportionately higher than their white counterparts.
According to the data, in 2008 45 percent of troops discharged under DADT were minorities, while they made up 30 percent of the service overall. With the implications of racism being added to the murky waters of homophobia that sustained the policy’s existence, the study had the potential to reframe the debate in a new and interesting way, but it was never meant to be. The findings of the study were met with a little fanfare by even the most vehement DADT repeal voices, and while the National Defense Authorization Act with DADT repeal language is finally winding its way through the senate process, the national debate surrounding DADT is arguably locked in the same place it was back in 2009 when the survey was released.
The lackluster response to the racially incendiary report served to hide the hard truths unearthed by the compelling narratives of discharged minority soldiers: that the repeal movement may be missing opportunities to build a more broad coalition against DADT, to diversify the public “face” of the policy, and to enter into meaningful conversations about homophobia in the minority communities of the soldiers affected by the discharges.
With the conversation regarding DADT taking place largely within the gay media and progressive left allies, the lack of attention given to the racial aspect of the discharges misses an enormous opportunity to retain support from groups that have had historically larger voices.
“Fundamentally, you need groups like the NAACP and NOW [National Organization of Women] to also take up DADT in a visible way,” says Korean-American former Marine Corps officer Julianne Sohn, who was discharged under DADT. “Having a predominately straight people of color organization or a women’s organization will better frame this debate.”
And it would help make DADT into more of a national issue. For all the attention that DADT inspires within gay media circles and our major cable network ally Rachel Maddow, it generates little more than a blip in mainstream news coverage, even as regular soldiers still continue to be discharged. Few could argue with the attention that would be given to the issue were someone like the NAACP’s Julian Bond, who has spoken so eloquently about gay rights in the past, to take a fierce and public stance against DADT.
Though some of the prominent faces of DADT are, in fact, soldiers of color, rarely are they discussed through a racial lens, which to Sohn indicates a two-pronged issue. Maintaining that “race and gender were both factors” during her time in the military, she has illuminating views regarding the reticence to bring up race within the context of the DADT debate.
“The military still has issues with rage and gender among the ranks, and DADT highlights these problems,” says Sohn. “Often times people just try to frame DADT as a gay issue when in reality it is also about race and gender.”
Race was also a factor in the discharge of African-American former marine corps sergeant Marquell Smith. An African-American first sergeant and commanding officer initiated the proceedings against Smith, contributing to his belief that “homophobia in the African-American community” was a factor in his discharge.
Previously, African-American veterans have been deployed in the repeal movement, but the results have been decidedly mixed.
Lt. Anthony Woods emerged as a powerful voice for repeal a few years back, but seemed constrained from being too outspoken on gay or DADT issues by an ill-fated bid for Congress. Cpl. Evelyn Thomas was deployed to great visual effect by the LGBT-Activist organization GetEqual when she joined other LGBT veterans in the now-legendary act of chaining themselves to the White House fence, but her visual presence in the movement was short-lived. Save for an awkwardly executed speech at a GetEqual rally maintaining that “separate is never equal,” little has been heard from her on a national level since.
While Smith has been welcomed as a voice in his native Illinois in the fight against DADT, he laments the lack of African-American faces and voices nationally. “From a national perspective, African-Americans do not have a face in the movement.”
This lack of presence in the movement speaks to a major opportunity that is being missed in the DADT repeal movement that could have positive reverberations for the gay community in general, which is an open and honest conversation about the unique challenges faced by minorities coming out in their perspective communities
To Smith, the problem in the repeal community seems symbiotic, surprising considering the broad racial makeup of the Armed Forces. Regarding African-Americans in general, he feels that there is “a lack of public recognition for their sacrifices, be it for valor or activism.” Both Sohn and Smith cite the religious leanings of their respective communities when pressed about coming out issues, and note that it is important to have visibly out and proud gays of color to help combat the unique challenges of coming out in minority communities.
The final push against DADT is just beginning, and repeal advocates are sure to get increased resistance by those who would rather keep the discriminatory policy in place for an indeterminate amount of time. The stories of the gay and lesbian soldiers of color and the unique ways in which race has impacted their experience with DADT are valid and should be heard. The reluctance to engage on racial issues is misguided, and serves only to narrow the focus and coalition of repeal advocates at a crucial time.
To gay veterans of color like Julianne Sohn, Marquell Smith, and many more like them, it is time for the media and repeal advocates to take a hard look at race and gender issues not only within the movement but within the military as well. The military’s handling of these issues is the strongest indicator of how its leadership will respond once DADT is repealed and gay and lesbian soldiers are integrated into the Armed Forces.
It is every bit as vital for the multitude of gay and lesbian veterans of color that remain disproportionately affected by the law.
“They aren’t the highly decorated combat vets…they don’t go in front of cameras, but they go home to their loved ones and deal with being discharged alone,” says Sohn. “I can’t separate DADT from issues of race and gender because I’ve lived it.”
Rob Smith is an openly gay African-American Iraq War Veteran, writer, and lecturer. He has written for The Huffington Post, Salon.com, USA Today, and AfterElton.com. He can be reached online at www.robsmithonline.com and via twitter @robsmithonline.