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social sciences

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Military Culture: United States  
 
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During the height of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, for example, the U. S. Navy discharged 483 and 461 gay men and lesbians in 1950 and 1970 respectively, about half its annual average. An even more extreme example occurred in the 1991 Persian Gulf War when the Pentagon issued a "stop-loss" order, which effectively ceased all discharges on the basis of homosexuality until the war was over. According to Michael Desch, research shows that "during wartime, open homosexuality has been relatively well tolerated."

In spite of its long history of officially banning gays and lesbians from service, the U. S. military has never treated them consistently. Indeed, sometimes it exercised great discretion in retaining them in the face of the official policy. An oft-cited example of this discretion occurred during World War II, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an order to expel the lesbians in the Women's Army Corps only to discover that were his order carried out, he would lose many of his most outstanding personnel, including his secretary and a member of his staff. He is reported to have said, "Forget that order."

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Even in the most tolerant of times, however, gay and lesbian military personnel have occupied a precarious position, subject to a long list of discriminatory and arbitrary practices, including witch hunts, courts martial, and dishonorable discharges.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy which was in effect from 1993 until 2011 was supposed to prohibit witch hunts, such as the 1980 investigation into lesbianism aboard the ship USS Norton Sound, which became famous for the tactics of intimidation and harassment employed by the Naval Investigative Service; but because the emphasis in the "Don't, Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" policy was much greater on the first two elements than on the third, witch hunts nevertheless continued.

Significantly, however, most of the investigations into homosexuality under DADT resulted in honorable discharges, rather than the stigmatizing dishonorable discharges that in the past often ruined the civilian lives of gay men and women expelled from the military.

Still, the DADT policy, which resulted in the discharges of over 14,000 servicemembers, nevertheless exacted a serious toll on the careers of gay and lesbian military personnel.

The Warrior Ethos

The U. S. military's inability to deal consistently with homosexuality stemmed in large part from its intense valorization of traditional forms of masculinity. Serving as a model for the perfect soldier, these ideal qualities include aggression, independence, risk taking, and sexual bravado. Even though many gay men and lesbians possess these qualities, and may on that account be particularly attracted to military service, military culture and its officials continue to see masculinity as an exclusive attribute of heterosexual men, thereby excluding homosexuals and women.

In its conflation of homosexuality and effeminacy, the U. S. military cannot imagine masculine homosexuals who can succeed as soldiers, despite the fact that homosexuals have always served in the military, often with distinction.

Women in the Military

This culture of masculinity has proven especially vexing to women in the military. In the past thirty years, women have begun to play an increasingly important role in the U. S. military. As it has moved from a conscription-based service to an all-volunteer force, the U. S. military has begun to give women increasingly more important roles to play in the military.

Yet as women have risen in importance and gotten closer to serving in combat roles, they have faced increasing difficulties. To prove their abilities, they often have to conform to masculine standards of behavior, yet succeeding as warriors invites sexual harassment and scrutiny of their sexuality. The more they fulfill the expectations of "masculinity," the more vulnerable they are to charges of lesbianism.

In 1999, a study found that 23% of women in the military have been targets of threatened or actual violence during their military careers. Critics of the military argue that sexual abuse helps maintain a clear gender distinction in the military, that it is in fact a brutal way to keep women from infringing on a male-dominated profession.

In spite of the military's insistence that service members may report such harassment without fear of retribution, women who do so often faced discharge, because reporting such abuse often leads to being labeled as a lesbian.

This happens in part because the assumptions that structure the military's attitudes toward harassment insist that women who do not wish to be the object of men's desire, no matter how violent, must be lesbian. And even if such accusations are not true, the mere suggestion of lesbianism is enough to ruin a woman's career, given the ease with which "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" allowed such gossip to be used as proof in investigations and administrative discharge hearings.

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