Nathaniel Frank’s new book, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America (Thomas Dunne, $25.95) , considers the effects of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. In the wake of an Obama administration, the LGBT community has been buzzing with the possibility of repealing the ban. Frank, who is optimistic about the end of the legislation, spoke by phone to Windy City Times about his project.
Windy City Times: You write that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) activism began around 1992-1993. Given that the AIDS crisis was still a concern for the gay community at that time, how did DADT become an issue?
Nathaniel Frank: That’s a great question. As you say, there was a much greater emphasis on the AIDS crisis in the early ’90s. The queer population had not been as sympathetic to this particular issue because of the tradition of queer activism that’s left-wing or pacifistic or anti-militaristic. I think it became a movement first, because it seemed easy. I think [President Bill] Clinton thought it could be easy and the gay movement thought, “Well, let’s start with this, and get that out of the way, because that’s a no-brainer.”
Female gay activists who were either in or had friends in the military recognized that even while some of the queer left was not warm to this issue, this was a matter of careers and lives being wrecked because of those for whom the military was always important. And then there were some of the newer people who came to the movement, who didn’t have the experience or orientation of the queer left, who thought, “this is winnable, this is easy.” All the stars seemed to align to make this a logical, easy step.
WCT: You mention the queer left. Given the widespread queer and straight opposition to these current wars, why should those who are opposed to war care about the lifting of the ban ?
NF: I’ve always had trouble understanding the position of what you might call strict pacifists. I’ve always thought our country needs a military. I think that needs to be separated from anger with and opposition to the particular militaristic history of the U.S. t certain points. You can oppose [all the prior and ongoing wars] and not necessarily think the country doesn’t need a military. As long as there is a military, the military should treat everyone who’s in an equivalent position equitably. You have to remember that this is not about whether gays can serve in the military but whether we admit that there already are gays in the military. How do you treat the 65,000 gay and lesbian members who are in uniform? What I try to do is show the hidden costs to those lives.
WCT: You write, “the gay ban is no less than the stalling of the march toward Enlightenment. The last three centuries of Western civilization have celebrated the ideals of freedom, truth, reason, and self-understanding. In the United States we often consider ourselves to be a world beacon for these efforts.” What’s the relationship between the agenda of DADT and this ideal of American global governance?
NF: That’s a great question. There is certainly a relationship between the ideal of gay rights [that] rests, among other things, on a notion very consistent with the best and earliest ideals of America, which was that bloodlines and heritage and race and tribe don”t need to separate us but can unite us. And gay Americans and gay families do that in sometimes very unique ways that buck the trend of world history, if you don’t mind me putting it that grandly. And so the ideal of the Enlightenment, that freedom comes through knowledge, self-understanding, self-governance, power—these are concepts that are very dear to what the gay-rights movement has sought to do over the past half-century in particular. Now, when I talk of Enlightenment ideals: there is also a connection between Enlightenment and Imperialism, and I’m not trying to endorse imperialism. It may be a slippery slope, but it’s always been one of the very self-conscious challenges of America, to do good in the world without going the way of other republics that have become damaging empires.
WCT: You seem to posit the gay soldier as separate from race and class issues. In a chapter that looks at how the army is discharging gays and filling its ranks with ex-convicts, you give the example of Private Steven Green, who shot and raped Abeer Qasim Hamza, a young Iraqi woman. You point out that Green was a “high school dropout with three misdemeanor convictions and history of drug abuse.” But ex-convicts could just as easily be gay, and we do hear stories about man-on-man brutality in Iraq.
NF: Sure. That’s exactly the issue. We certainly don’t know who’s gay on an empirical level. I’ve no way of knowing if people in that category are gay or not; I would argue that it doesn’t matter. What I am suggesting in those cases is that to take as a classification people who have a trait [gayness] that has been proven to have nothing to do with capacity for military performance and then ban those people because of the prejudice or discomfort of some other group in the military, is unwise policy. And next to that is a policy that, partly in order to fill those very slots, takes a group of people who statistically are at higher risk of causing disruptions or leaving the military early. I feel that those who have served their time deserve a second chance. Nowhere do I suggest that those who are ex-convicts in the military are straight or are not gay. It’s a question of risk assessment and an unwise application of risk assessment.
WCT: You write about the Tailhook scandal and the harassment of lesbians at West Point. We are always reading about instances of brutality and harassment in the military. So why would anyone want to join the army?
NF: That goes back to what I said earlier about the queer left. At times the queer left has tried to hold hostage issues like this one … in order to forward a particular agenda that shouldn’t be tethered to queerness. There are a huge number of Americans, often between the coasts, who have different politics than the queer left, who join the military because it’s a tradition, because their parents and grandparents were in it, because of benefits and education. A strict pacifist will say, “I don’t support that because I don”t want to endorse or perpetuate a scenario where in order for people to follow tradition or gain education, they need to carry a gun and kill people.” That sounds nice initially, but that’s not realistic.
WCT: But this [criticism] is not only from strict pacifists. And when you point to the two coasts—that’s a stark contrast that allows for certain arguments to be made, but it also relies on an idealized notion, does it not, of what Middle America wants? And that idealization of the Middle American is exactly what you very rightly critique in the book, when you point out how that figure is manipulatively evoked as an example of someone who might dislike having gays at close quarters.
NF: I wouldn’t agree that I am referring to the military in an idealized way. This is an age-old debate about whether change is best brought about from the inside or the outside. The idea that we can simply not join something and hope that what that institution is doing will stop—I don’t think that’s the way to do it. This is an important institution in American life.
WCT: You mention that NGLTF [the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force] was part of the consortium of groups that first wanted the ban lifted. Most people assume that HRC [the Human Rights Campaign] was the driving force.
NF: They haven’t [been that] , actually. They will say that they favor a repeal but they have not devoted as much time to this as ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] and hate crimes. I have found their silence somewhat surprising. Congressional staff members have told me that it’s very important to them to have HRC on board.
WCT: Why do you think HRC has been silent?
NF: I don’t pretend to know the way the big groups operate. All I can guess is that they prioritize those laws and policies they think are most likely to move first or easiest and/or reflect their constituents.
WCT: You position the religious right against gay Americans. There’s always a presumption that the queer agenda is inherently oppositional to the norm, but in fact DADT is about the war, and about preserving America’s role. Is it time to acknowledge that the queer agenda is not necessarily always a left agenda?
NF: Right. Historically, the queer agenda has been at odds with the Religious Right, not with religion itself. The Religious Right has been a socially conservative movement that has been intolerant of queers. It’s important to acknowledge that queerness is not the same as leftness. We tend to be leftish. That suits me, but it doesn’t suit everyone. It’s a reminder that [DADT] is not just about the war. It drew a lot of people to it because it’s about what American citizenship means. And part of that is refracted through the question of what it means to be a warrior, to defend America. And even for those who are not warriors, it asks, “What does it mean to be an American and what does it mean that so many people have tried to define gay people as somehow not first-class American citizens?” So it’s larger than war.