Marching Toward Equality in the Military—But at What Cost?

Yasmin Nair, Ryan Conrad and Karma Chávez

Nancy Monahan, a retired Coast Guard petty officer, shares a laugh with her wife, Deb Needham, after their wedding at Seattle's City Hall on December 9, 2012, after Washington became one of three states to legalize gay marriage in November's elections. This week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta signed an order extending some benefits to same-sex couples serving in the military.

Last month, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that he would lift the military’s ban on women in combat, citing his aim to remove as many barriers as possible for talented and qualified people to be able to serve this country in uniform.” On Monday, as one of his final acts in office, Panetta furthered this pledge by signing an order expanding some benefits for gay and lesbian couples serving in the military. 

Like many other institutions, the military is struggling to adjust to a world where gay rights,” broadly understood in terms of inclusion, are now the norm rather than the exception. According to the Los Angeles Times, The order grants same-sex couples the right for the first time to request assignment to the same post or duty station if both serve in the military. It also allows partners to receive pay and other benefits if one is taken prisoner or is missing in action.”

The September 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the end of the combat exclusion rule have been celebrated by feminists and gay rights organizers. For many, both measures are steps towards equality” and a chance for people in both or either of the groups to gain upward social mobility. In December 2011, Ashley Broadway was denied membership in the Fort Bragg, N.C. military base’s Spouses Club. Following an uproar from groups like OutServe-SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network), the Marine Corps sent a memo discouraging such discrimination. In a conclusion fit for Hollywood, the Fort Bragg base voted to allow Broadway on the same day she was chosen as Spouse of the Year by Military Spouse magazine. The message is clear: include or else.

As members of Against Equality, a radical queer editorial and activist collective, we are bemused by this celebration. As anti-war and anti-militarization activists and thinkers, we consistently point out the long radical queer history of anti-militarization. Not too long ago, queers marched against war, not to be included in it. Queers have always understood that war abroad is linked to violence at home, and that a culture which breeds a growing prison industrial complex also wreaks havoc upon other nations. 

Much of the fanfare surrounding women in combat centers on the possibility that Panetta’s announcement will open up more than 230,000 jobs to women in the military. But this is no cause for celebration in a neoliberal economy where it’s members of the poorest communities, mostly Latino/​a and African American, who are forced to send their youth to the military with little assurance that they will not return in body bags. A 2011 study from the Pew Research Center found that women of color are significantly over-represented among women in the military. While white women represent 78 percent of the civilian female population, they account for just 53 percent of female service members. Black women, meanwhile, represent 31 percent of enlisted women — twice their percentage in the civilian female population, and more than a third of all women in the military

We understand the U.S. military not as a foundation for equality and upward social mobility, but as a guarantor of the opposite—and as a breeding ground for sexual violence. Another argument for equality in the military presumes that greater inclusion of women and gays foretells the gradual end of sexual violence because both groups are more sensitive to such issues. This ignores the fact that the military is quintessentially a hierarchical power structure. While that remains unchanged, even gays and lesbians and women may continue the sexual violence or, at the least, ignore it. To do otherwise would mean disrupting the might of an institution which now validates them through its promises of equality and social mobility.

Fundamentally, what does equality framed in terms of mere inclusion mean when it involves joining an institution whose very reason for existence is the obliteration of lives to prove military might, mostly in regions being exploited for their resources? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the spread of U.S. military bases worldwide are about establishing US supremacy as a neoliberal and imperial power. What would it mean for gays and lesbians, as well as women, to see themselves as part of an equality” framework when their jobs assure the opposite to those over whom they must lord over?

The order signed by Panetta stops short of extending medical, dental or housing benefits to gay and lesbian couples. The problem? The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) supercedes DADT and forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex partnerships. But solutions are already on the horizon: In order to receive healthcare and welfare, according to the Seattle Times, the military will likely require that a document be signed to designate the military member’s partner as a legitimate recipient of the benefits.”

Advocates of marriage and military equality are hopeful: Today, the Pentagon took a historic step forward toward righting the wrong of inequality in our armed forces, but there is still more work to be done,” said Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, in a statement on Monday.

We’re struck by the simplicity and common sense of the proposed measure. The mere signing of a document could grant long-denied, life-saving benefits — to spouses of service members. We wish matters could be just as simple for civilian queers who don’t choose to marry. As activists and writers who have also been critical of marriage, we are astonished at the cultural schizophrenia that allows so many to demand this measure for one group, military families, while refusing to endorse the same for millions of unmarried people. The gay marriage movement, tied to the cause of military inclusion, came out of a mainstream gay and lesbian push to assert the primacy of marriage as the sole guarantor of benefits. The movement could have gone a different and more fruitful route, and used its immense resources to demand that we be allowed to choose our beneficiaries, married or not. Even better, gays and lesbians could have spent their significant political and economic cachet in demanding that this country move towards a truly universal health care reform and to decouple benefits like health care from marital status.

The past month, to be sure, has been a momentous one for inclusion in the military. But rather than celebrate this false rhetoric of equality and inclusion, queers and their allies should take a closer look at the institution that they’re patting on the back. The military is about enforcing brutality and imperialism, and no amount of inclusion in military spousal clubs will make that reality disappear.

Yasmin Nair, Ryan Conrad and Karma Chávez are members of Against Equality, a radical queer editorial collective.
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