Policing Gender in the Military

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Lt. Col. Edie Disler's censure for encouraging critical discussion of gays in the military in her classroom comes as no surprise. Especially in light of consistently disproportionate discharges of women under "don't ask, don't tell," and the epidemic of violence against women in the military that has Congress considering the Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act this year.

Unfortunately, the connections between these phenomenon are not being adequately addressed in academic, military, or legislative circles.

The Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act will not go far to stem violence against women in the military unless the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is also reversed. And even then, it will take time and effort to transform the culture of gender policing that is prevalent in the military today.

The terrible treatment of Joseph Rocha in the Navy is a case in point. His abuse was triggered by his refusal to participate in demeaning heterosexual conduct. His abuse went hand in hand with ongoing mistreatment of women: while he was forced to act effeminate and simulate oral sex on a man, his female colleagues were forced to perform "lesbian sex" for the voyeuristic pleasure of heterosexual men.

Interestingly, it is The Center for Military Readiness that seems to understand this connection best. Not only do they support a ban on gays in the military, but they oppose women taking on certain roles in the military. CMR's position should not be discounted for what it reveals about why Officer Rocha was abused, why Lt. Col. Disler was threatened, and why women are disproportionately discharged under "don't ask, don't tell."

The military has a role in policing the gender boundaries of society. Some people, like Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, think the military should foster "traditional chivalry" and all of the gender (and racial/ethnic) roles that ideal portends. (This Palm Center article in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy responds this).

As transgender servicemembers who are regularly mistreated in the military know, the problem is not entirely one of gays in the military or women in the military, but rather one of policing of gender roles in the military in order to stem a wider "social apocalypse" (see the last page of the Duke article mentioned above). That policing is executed in a variety of ways including harassment, discharge, and exclusionary policies.

To be sure, we need more information about why women are disproportionately discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" and we need more information about how and why violence against women remains rampant in the military (not to mention civil society). Legislators considering the Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act should explore these connections in more depth. But the "don't ask, don't tell" policy itself remains a significant barrier to good information. The policy demands subterfuge and silence and prevents a thorough exploration of the links between openly gay service and elimination of violence against women.

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