Sexual identities and the guise of equality in the military
By Chris Zivalich
The recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was lauded by progressives, LGBTQ activists and even a good portion of soldiers and military personnel. After years of discharging those found guilty of violating the controversial policy, everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, is now allowed to join the military without checking their dignity at recruitment center doors.
This moment for the gay right’s movement has been compared to the integration of females into the military as another example of progress toward “liberation.” It appears as though gender boundaries are disappearing and that equality under militarized structures provides freedom for women and the gay community by allowing them to handle its intensity.
But are we really “liberating” gays or heterosexual women by letting them serve in a system that perpetuates death and domination? By labeling it a step forward for someone to join the military, aren’t we assuming the military is capable of instituting freedom—that it, in fact, could somehow provide space for equality even though it regularly takes lives, destroys infrastructure and dismantles entire communities? The reason for this complicity with the military arguably stems from our complicity with masculinity and the behavior it encourages.
After all, we tend to think of masculinity as an expression of anger and protection, one with “natural” roots in testosterone: “Boys will be boys” is a phrase applicable to everything from bullying to wrestling. The military, as the most aggressive branch of political power, embodies this notion of masculinity. But despite the “manly nature” of war and militarism, women make up 14 percent of active service in the U.S. military. And while it is unclear how many soldiers identify as something other than heterosexual, there are plenty of individuals in the armed services who otherwise are not considered masculine simply because of their sexual identity or behavior.
This creates tension. When we see people in the military whose characteristics contrast with our concept of masculinity—including gay men whose “manliness” we instinctively reject or women whose bodies we’re convinced are too “fragile” to engage in combat—we masculinize them to alleviate confusion. On the other hand, women and LGBTQ people are let into the military and expected to conform to its masculine standards, yet they are still cruelly reminded of their differences. Women continue to be raped or sexually harassed, and words like “fag” haven’t disappeared from soldiers’ vocabulary.
Masculinizing, thus, doesn’t mean we completely forget who LGBTQ people or heterosexual women are, assuming they have developed different sexual interests or genitalia—instead, it means we permit them to commit masculinized acts that authorize domination, a practice our society accepts as some sort of “law of mankind.” Consequently, we witness women torturing prisoners in Iraq, and soon men of all sexualities will be releasing drone attacks on Pakistan.
Our rules for masculinity legitimize this violence, aggression and domination as a form of human nature and, therefore, legitimize the need for a military. Because we continue to value these principles, military activity becomes naturalized. The military is the epitome of aggression and is perceived as a normal means of social control. We can now allow a gay man to engage in warfare because his performance of masculinity at that very moment is held above all others. In fact, we call this “equality.”
As a result, we do not contest the misappropriation of terms like “freedom” under these circumstances because we perceive such changes as actual freedom. Still, the military fundamentally denies equality by waging wars, dropping bombs and piling up body counts. This isn’t a system welcomed with joy. It doesn’t bring freedom to those whose lives take place in militarized spaces. So why would it bring freedom to those who can now create such spaces?
In the end, our perspective demands rewiring. Even though the concept of “equality for all” seems applicable to the military, we cannot continue to buy that narrative. We should not conceive militarization both in the United States and abroad as a structure in which gender is somehow liberated by new policies. If we let our protest subside simply because of the inclusion of women or gay people in the military, we ignore why a military is used and honored in the first place. In order to encourage and explore more complex thinking on this subject, we have to critique the military as a reinforcement of these masculine ideals that harm and endanger society.
Chris Zivalich is a junior journalism major. E-mail him at [email protected].