Press Room

Air Force Academy Sanctions Professor After Discussion About Gays

Sub-Heading: 
New Data Show Lesbian Discharges in Air Force Are Disproportionate; Lt. Col. Is Reprimanded and Removed from Classroom 
Release Date: 
October 8, 2009
Press Contact: 
Indra Lusero, Assistant Director, Palm Center, 303-902-9402, info@palmcenter.ucsb.edu
Image: 
hrs_air force graduation.jpg

SANTA BARBARA, CA, October 8, 2009 - A
Lieutenant Colonel who taught at the Air Force Academy was punished after she invited
three Academy alumni to campus to discuss sexual minorities in the
military. This comes alongside an Associated Press report on new Pentagon data showing that
women made up a majority of Air Force discharges under the “don’t ask,
don’t tell” policy in 2008.

For a pdf version of this release, click here.

SANTA BARBARA, CA, October 8, 2009 - The Palm Center has learned that a
Lieutenant Colonel who taught at the Air Force Academy in Colorado
Springs, CO, was punished and barred from teaching after she invited
three Academy alumni to campus to discuss sexual minorities in the
military.  The professor, Lt. Col. Edith A. Disler, told Palm Center
researchers that the classroom visit was approved by her course
director, but Academy officials pulled her from the classroom anyway,
launching an investigation that ended in a formal reprimand based on
the subject matter discussed.

Also today the Associated Press is reporting on new Pentagon data obtained by the Palm Center showing that
women made up a majority of Air Force discharges under the “don’t ask,
don’t tell” policy in 2008, even though they represent a distinct
minority of the overall service.  Women received 56 of the 90 total Air
Force discharges under the policy, which is 61% of firings, even though
women make up only 20% of the service. By comparison, women received
36% of discharges in the Army, where they make up 14% of personnel, 23%
in the Navy where they make up 14%, and 18% in the Marines where they
make up only 6%.

“We have always known that women are disproportionately affected by
‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” said Dr. Aaron Belkin, Director of the Palm
Center and a professor of political science at UC-Santa Barbara, where
Palm is based. “But the Air Force data are particularly troubling and
raise questions about why women might be targeted there for persecution
under the current policy.  Lt. Col. Disler’s experience with censorship
at the Air Force Academy adds urgency to the need to assess the command
climate in the Air Force, as well as to the need to re-examine the
costs of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ more broadly.”

Lt. Col. Disler was an Air Force officer for twenty-five years, and has
served as senior speechwriter to the Chief of Staff and Secretary of
the Air Force, executive support officer to the Secretary of Defense,
and an arms control inspector. Her reprimand occurred late last year
when she learned that a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgender (GLBT) combat veterans, who were also alumni of the
Academy, offered speaking engagements as part of the Blue Alliance,
which promotes education for, and support of, GLBT service members. A
week after a classroom visit that Disler described as very
well-received by students, she learned that she was being investigated,
and was told she could not return to the classroom and could not
discuss the matter with students, but she was not told the reason for
the investigation. She was eventually told she was being investigated
to determine if she had violated any policies or procedures or any
“classroom decorum.” A formal letter of counseling followed, which
scolded Disler for a “lack of judgment in not recognizing that negative
publicity could follow” from her decision to have members of the Blue
Alliance visit campus. “Your failure caused significant consternation
with USAFA’s senior leadership and had the potential to create the
perception that the USAF Academy does not support current Air Force and
Department of Defense policy on a this [sic] sensitive matter.” The
letter states the reason for the punishment was that Disler should have
obtained prior approval not just from her course director, but also
from her department head, but Disler says there is no written policy
stating that is required, and that such a requirement would undercut
academic freedom.

Belkin contrasted the censorship in the Air Force, which has been
plagued in recent years with allegations of tolerating both sexual
harassment and religious proselytizing, with the willingness of the
Defense Department to publish an officer’s essay criticizing the
current ban on open gays. The essay, by Col. Om Prakash, won a military
essay contest and was published, with the approval of the Chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the current issue of the flagship
military journal, Joint Force Quarterly. “This public criticism of the
policy by a military official is an important indication that the
Pentagon welcomes genuine discussion on the issue,” Belkin said. “In
this sense, the Air Force seems out of step.”

Disler, who had her retirement date set, said her superiors seemed to
suggest she take pains to avoid garnering attention or visibility
around the incident, saying, “We just want you to make it to your
retirement date.” Disler said this was “about the last, worst insult I
could receive after my long career, to be told, ‘we just want you to
leave quietly.’” She interpreted the comments as saying she should be
grateful to leave without a last-minute court-martial or investigation
of her sexuality under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. She also
found the episode to be detrimental to the educational climate. “It’s
amazing to say that Air Force Academy combat veterans are not welcome
on campus just because they’re gay or because they advocate a certain
view or want to be helpful to the Air Force when the current policy [on
homosexuality] changes,” she said. Her course focused on war,
literature and leadership, and emphasized the core value of respect for
human dignity. “It’s easy to say you have respect for others,” she
said, “but this was a test of whether that was just an abstract concept
or would be applied in actuality. If you censor a presentation about
sexual minorities in the military, you’re not only failing to prepare
officers for what they’re going to face in the future, but you’re not
engaged in a college-level discussion.”

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The Palm Center is a think tank at the University of California, Santa
Barbara. Since 1998, the Center has been a leader in commissioning and
disseminating research in the areas of gender, sexuality, and the
military. For more information visit www.palmcenter.ucsb.edu.