By Leonard Pitts Jr.
Sometimes, the battle over gay rights reminds me of a science-fiction movie.
I’m thinking “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or one of those other golden oldies where humankind is infiltrated by an enemy that looks and sounds like us and is therefore able to hide among us, undetected. That was probably intended as a metaphor for communist agents when “Body Snatchers” came out in 1956, but in 2004, it serves just as well as a metaphor for gay life.
As Exhibit A, I refer you to a little-noticed news item from last month. It was about three retired members of the U.S. military who disclosed they were gay. What made it noteworthy is these were not just any three grunts, but two generals and an admiral.
Specifically, they were U.S. Army Brig. Gens. Keith Kerr and Virgil Richard and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Alan Steinman, who collectively represent nearly nine decades of service to the nation. That service includes intelligence work, duty in Vietnam and important research into maritime medicine, none of which would have been possible had their sexual orientation been known.
The three are thought to be the highest-ranking servicemen ever to leave the proverbial closet. Ironically enough, they were, as high-ranking officers, charged with enforcing the military’s policy on homosexual personnel — the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Last month, they acknowledged what has long been obvious: “Don’t ask” is bad policy. Bad as a practical matter because it costs us valuable men and women like the nine gay linguists, specialists in Arabic and Korean (think there’s any call for their services these days?), who were given the boot in 2002. But primarily, the policy is bad simply because it’s wrong, because it imposes upon gay men and lesbians an unfair moral conundrum: Serve your country and deny who you are. Or be true to who you are and deny the call that impels you to serve your country. Either way, you violate conscience.
We are told that homosexuality is incompatible with military life because it undermines “unit cohesion.” That seems a fancy way of saying the straight boys are antsy about sharing a shower with the gay ones. Which would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.
Where gay rights are concerned, most of the nation is moving, albeit haltingly, forward. Most of us understand that sexual orientation is not character and has no bearing on ability. And most of us do not live in the terrified certainty that every gay person wants us.
The American military is one of the few institutions that still refuse, as a matter of policy, to reach that minimal level of enlightenment. It is one of the reasons some gay people still find it necessary to hide among us like something out of an old sci-fi movie.
No, there’s nothing new in that. It’s called “passing,” and it’s an experience sadly familiar to many American ethnics. Indeed, early Jewish immigrants sometimes discarded their yarmulkes and changed their names in order to blend in. And former NAACP chief Walter White was a “black” man so pink of skin and blond of hair that he could — and did — infiltrate a lynch mob.
But “passing” is, it seems fair to say, a more immediate and frequent experience for gay men and lesbians. And if being forced to hide who you are is a humiliating thing, I think it ultimately says more about a society than about the people who move through it like shadows, seen but not really seen.
There is, you have to admit, something silly and self-deluding in the idea that you can cordon off a hidden culture, that you can keep them over there separate from us over here. How many gay preachers, police, ballplayers, admirals and generals have to come forward before we get it? When do we stop being surprised to learn that “gay” is something right next door or just down the hall?
I mean, I hate to break it to the soldier who fears sharing the shower with a gay man, but chances are, he already has.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: