Unfriendly Fire
How the gay ban undermines the military and weakens America

Why does it matter?

When I tell people I write about gays in the military, they often wonder why. Why does the issue matter, to me—a skinny gay guy from a Quaker school—and to others? Why is it important to study and discuss the question of whether gays, lesbians and bisexuals should be able to serve their country in uniform without concealing their true identity?

At the Palm Center, which studies “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we are interested, above all, in knowledge. What is its role in our society, how does its power assert itself, and what is our responsibility to use it in particular ways?

In 1993, when I first learned that the U.S. Congress was considering creating a law that banned not gays and lesbians from service, but knowledge of that service, I took an immediate interest in the issue. As an academic who was trained to help shed light instead of shadows on areas of critical importance to the great moral, social and economic issues of the day, I wondered what could be gained from a policy which invited millions of Americans to pretend that something they knew to be true was false. After all, even the most adamant opponents of gay service would be hard pressed to argue that there were—or could ever be—no gays in the military. How, then, could a policy requiring people to deny what they knew to be true actually help preserve privacy, morale or cohesion?

In researching Unfriendly Fire, I had the opportunity to ask straight troops this question. Many acknowledged it didn’t make much sense, but amazingly, some actually admitted they would rather not know who was gay in their midst, and that somehow made them more comfortable. Repressing or denying discomfiting facts has a place in all our lives; after all, we cannot confront all things all the time, and sometimes the easiest way to avoid the insanity that would ensue from such a feat is to tell ourselves what seem like harmless little untruths throughout the day.

Yet surely there are times when such untruths turn out not to be harmless. They have unforeseen costs and their falsity constantly threatens to burst onto the scene at the most inopportune times. They upend relationships; they destroy trust; they create unspoken tensions that are never far from the surface. They may seem to preserve order and maintain civilization but do so only, in reality, on a fragile house of cards, built on insecurity, injustice and cognitive dissonance.

We all have secrets. We all tell untruths—to others and to ourselves. Determining when, if ever, doing so is healthy, moral and just is a primary task we face as civilized human beings. Nowhere is this effort more important than when it comes to shaping our national defense—military, moral and otherwise. Which is why I have remained passionately committed to the question of gay service—why it matters so much to me and, I think, to many others.

As an academic, I am mindful of recent challenges to modernity’s faith in the link between truth, freedom and progress. But I still believe in the Enlightenment philosophy that knowledge, information and light are the best tools to help us answer these kinds of questions, which challenge each of us every day. Our survival, our prosperity and our humanity depend on answering them with intelligence, wisdom, and humility.

One Response to “Why does it matter?”

  1. John Frank says:

    I was so moved by your “Why does it Matter” above and hope you are able to emphasize your understanding of why and when the truth matters and especially what prices individuals and a society pay–in big and small ways–when the truth is ignored or covered over.
    Thanks for enlightening your father.

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