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DADT and the Silence / Silencing of Queer Anti-War Voices [5 February, 2010]

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The news of a possible repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has gay and straight liberals billing and cooing at each other like long lost pigeon lovers.  If the words of military top brass are to be believed, they really, really, really wanted us in the army all along and were just waiting for the times to change.  John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff proclaimed that “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was seen as a useful measure that allowed time to pass while our culture continued to evolve.  The question before us now is whether enough time has gone by to give this policy serious reconsideration.  I believe that it has.”

The press and teh gayz are playing up the repeal of DADT as an issue of fairness and cultural “evolution” while downplaying the real reasons for this change of heart: the country is far less pro-war than it was at the start of this century, and the armed forces are desperately in need of fresh bodies to send to fight in the wars that have made the United States the most loathed power in the world.

I’ll save a fuller critique of DADT and the LGBT community for later (although I do encourage you to look at a new website that will take on that and related issues;  For now, I want to raise the issue of queer silence around the wars we are engaged in and, more specifically, the possible silencing of queer anti-war voices against the war.

I can remember being part of queer contingents against the war(s) in Chicago and of having our critique covered by sometimes curious but engaged media representatives.  But lately, even the purportedly progressive/liberal media (few will openly declare themselves leftist these days) has been going along with the idea that the gay community is unified in its reasons to see DADT repealed ignoring the shockingly conservative ways in which it voices its bloodthirsty desire to kill in the name of war.  Even liberals and progressives are unwilling to question gay militarism.  Just as they are unwilling to recognise and deplore the conservatism of the mainstream gay marriage movement, whose rhetoric about how marriage will make for better children and cause married gay people’s dogs to crap gold is no different than that of the right-wingers who support “traditional” marriage).

Much of the problem with the media’s one-sided and simplistic coverage of LGBT issues has to do with its sense that something “gay” can only be covered in the way that the big gay organizations would like them covered.  But an equally large problem is with the media’s depoliticising of gay topics.  Talk to any reporter about a “gay story” and you will immediately see the “human interest” button light up above her/his head.  Matters are not helped by the current mainstream gay discourse around marriage, the military, and hate crimes legislation.  All of these issues, including marriage, are nothing if not deeply political, and speak to the disbursement of power in our society.  Yet, over and over, gays reduce them to stories of pathos and “love,” effectively erasing their political potency.

Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now had Dan Choi on and his rhetoric should make any anti-war protester’s toes curl.  Instead, the famously progressive Goodman listened uncritically as Choi repeated a conversation he had with an Iraqi doctor who is supposed to have said to him:

Brother, I know that you’re gay, but you’re still my brother, and you’re my friend.  And if your country, that sent you to my country, if America, that sent you to Iraq, will discharge you such that you can’t get medical benefits, you can come to my hospital any day.  You can come in, and I will give you treatment.  In South Baghdad, you can come, because it’s my duty to pay you back somehow for the sacrifices that you’ve made.  It would be my honor.” So I hope that our country can learn from that Iraqi doctor.

It’s unlikely that Goodman would have let any straight soldier get away with this kind of rhetoric, the sort that renders U.S complicity in Iraq’s devastation utterly invisible.  Goodman repeated much of the interview’s content in a column on Huffington Post, which you can read here.  I could go on with the many problems with Choi’s words, but I think they should be obvious to many.  I’ve been uneasy with such moments in the media, and have been wondering: where are the queer anti-war voices that also give us a critical perspective on DADT and have a critical analysis of the reasons why a dependence on a war economy is disastrous for our country’s youngest and poorest people of color, the main targets of the military’s current recruiting tactics?  Where are the queers carrying on the queer tradition of being anti-war?  I’m not talking about wishy-washy power liberals like Urvashi Vaid, who hold up the status quo in the high towers of the mainstream non-profit industrial complex and emerge with bland statements about “the interconnection of all of these battles for justice” without acknowledging that marriage and war are, for many queers, not a part of any social justice project.

I’m talking about down and dirty queers who resist the war machine, who agree that DADT is unfair, but also insist that there can be no queer support of the military machine, and who refute the kind of pro-war miltaristic rhetoric spewed forth by Choi and his compatriots.

Well, as it turns out, they are all around us but their voices have been silenced, either in the din of the hype around DADT or of the war drums that are beaten endlessly by gays and lesbians who go overboard with their rhetoric about how willing they are to kill for their country.  More unnerving is the fact that even programs like Goodman’s are going along with this gay conservatism around war and DADT and not questioning the contradictions that they, surely, discern.

More and more, radical queers are loudly questioning this kind of explicit and implicit silencing of anti-war queer voices.  In a brilliant radio piece on the gay movement by Women’s Magazine on KPFA-Pacifica, which you can find here, Kenyon Farrow of QEJ is explicitly critical of Goodman’s lack of questioning of gay militarism.  More recently, Kate Raphael of LAGAI - Queer Insurrection and QUIT (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) posted an open letter to Amy Goodman, and I think it’s worth quoting at length:

You would never have a heterosexual soldier on your show uncritically talking about their work, and not even ask them one question about why they want to be part of an institution whose purpose is to oppress and repress people all over the world and maintain U.S.  control over the world’s resources.  By having those gay people on air, and not even challenging them, you are treating them - us - as less human than straight people.  You are reinforcing the very policy that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is based on - that gay people are less moral, or cannot be held to the same ethical and human rights standards, as straight people.

It’s a daring and fresh perspective, one that rarely gets heard in either the mainstream or the supposedly progressive media.  I got notification of the letter in an e-mail from Raphael asking recipients to send similar letters to Goodman, and it will be interesting to see how many do so and what the response will be.  You could, conceivably, also just forward the link to Goodman and other liberal/progressive media outlets and ask them consider having more nuanced perspectives on DADT.  Who knows?  Maybe, just maybe, she’ll have Raphael, Farrow, or Ryn Gluckman on the show.  Or all of them and more.  Who knows?  Maybe the media will finally admit that it’s not homophobic to admit that queers disagree with other queers and that an uncritically pro-war rationale against DADT is something that needs critique, not acceptance.


No one can pretend that any of this is uncomplicated, but the least that progressive media can do is lay bare the complications instead of keeping silent about them in the hope that they will just go away.

And on a lighter note, here’s Ryan Conrad’s posting of Bill Hicks on gays and the military.

And here’s how I feel about the “gay movement” right now, h/t to my friend Tony Hussein Cochran.

Orginally published on The Bilerico Project, 5 February, 2010.  Read comments here.

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