When I was 18 the US military deemed me unfit for service, for a
reason that has never barred me from any job in the civilian world.
I suffer from serious food allergies. In civilian life I would have
been protected by antidiscrimination laws. I bring up this
difference between military and civilian rules not to argue that
Columbia should shun the military because it is prone to
discrimination but to illustrate that military life is very
different from civilian life. A soldier who can drop dead from
eating lunch is a danger not only to himself but to those who depend
on him and to those who would be called upon to evacuate him when
ill. It was not only legal to exclude me from combat, it was the
practical and right thing to do.
I offer this as a clear-cut situation in which the military should
not be bound by the same antidiscrimination rules that govern
civilian life. The issue of gays in the military is less
clear-cut. Exclusion of gays is a complex mixture of deplorable
bigotry and commendable concern for sexual privacy.
For situations in which discrimination is due completely to bigotry,
it is simple to recommend what to do: follow the example of what
President Truman did for African Americans in the military and order
straight and gay soldiers to respect each other and get on with
For situations in which sexual privacy is involved, the issue is
more difficult. Barracks are typically segregated by sex, and few
people advocate telling soldiers of both sexes to sleep together in
one big room and order their hormones to cease and desist.
The 1993 "Don't ask don't tell" controversy was very bitter because
one side claimed it was all about bigotry and the other side claimed
it was all about sexual privacy. This bitterness, coupled with a
new administration in Washington with little personal experience in
the military, led to chaotic policymaking. The Clinton
administration settled for a DADT compromise
so poorly thought out
that gays were excluded from the military even for jobs such as
lawyers for which sexual privacy is not an issue, an exclusion that
looks to us like 100% bigotry but in fact was closer to 100% fiasco.
Much has changed in 12 years, and now the Columbia community faces a
decision in which it must weigh the good of restoring ROTC, with all
its benefits to Columbia and to the country, against the defects of
DADT, a law that almost everyone at Columbia wants to reform or
From a legal point of view (as parsed by this physician/scientist)
there seems to be little problem. New York City
against gays in employment and public accommodations, yet ROTC
programs exist within the city. The ROTC programs are legal because
federal law supersedes local law. New York City's laws are
interpreted as if they contain the words "except where specified by
federal law." One could make a similar argument that Columbia's
nondiscrimination rules should be interpreted with the same
qualifier. Implicitly this was done when the Law School allowed
military recruiters last year.
But invoking the power of the federal government to call the shots
at Columbia doesn't sit well with our view of how the world should
work. An approach that fits our sensibilities better is the
prospect that more Columbia people in the military will chip away at
DADT from the inside. However, this prospect seems too distant to
feel entirely satisfying. A more immediate approach would be to
press Congress to listen to members of our community whose pleas to
serve in the military are very compelling.
At the University Senate's
Town Hall meeting on ROTC
, I was inspired
by the example of a law student who denounced DADT and said he has
"talked to people at the Law School about how it would be kind of
cool to be in JAG for a few years. It’d be a great experience.
It’d be a great opportunity to serve the country. I unfortunately
cannot do so."
What would Congress say to him? It doesn't make sense to ban a
lawyer from the military for sexual privacy reasons since military
lawyers tend to have individual accommodations. The only
justification for such a ban, beyond bigotry, is a law that Congress
wrote in haste. We should start by forcing lawmakers to confront
such obvious cases. Next, we should generalize the argument, asking
how one can exclude gays from other units in which soldiers tend to
have individual accommodations. In 1993 there were few such units.
Now, as a result of the deep integration of women into the military,
there is much more privacy infrastructure in place. This reduces
the sexual privacy reasons for excluding gays from many units,
leaving primarily the bigotry component, which is hard to defend at
a time when the military is struggling to reach manpower targets.
Some will say that we should wait for Congress to act on DADT before
inviting ROTC to return to Columbia. I disagree. We should take
the moral high ground by showcasing the eagerness of people at
Columbia to serve in the military. We should act now to restore
ROTC, and we should insist that Congress come to terms with members
of our community for whom no one can explain why they should not be
allowed to serve.
For the past decade, Congress has dug in its heels by wielding the
heavy-handed Solomon Amendment, and elite universities such as
Columbia have dug in their heels with an equally heavy-handed
exclusion of ROTC. As in many stalemates, many of the actions of
each side have been motivated more by displeasure with the other
side than by a realistic plan for progress. If we transcend this
stalemate we can challenge Congress to move towards greater gay
rights in the military, not just for lawyers but for doctors,
nurses, journalists, translators and many others.
An appeal to Congress is not guaranteed to work, and an incremental
strategy does not accomplish the full goals of DADT opponents
immediately. But an incremental strategy is our best shot to get
progress on the DADT issue, and restoring ROTC is our best hope for
reducing the civilian-military divide.
The University Senate vote on ROTC on May 6th is a defining moment.
Do we want to feel self-righteous, or do we want to act boldly and
patriotically to initiate reforms by starting with cases so
unassailable that they will melt the opposition?
MD'83 PhD'82 is Webmaster of