Cmdr. Zoe Dunning

(WOMENSENEWS)–As a lesbian serving in the U.S. Navy, Cmdr. Zoe Dunning routinely accepted dates from men simply to avoid accusations that she was homosexual. That was more than 16 years ago. Yet a recent report indicates that the atmosphere in which women in the military operate has worsened.

Today, more than 12,000 service members have lost their jobs because of the so-called don’t ask, don’t tell law. A disproportionate number of those discharges are women, according to statistics gathered by the Washington-based Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network from the government under the Freedom of Information Act, and released to the public June 23.

"’Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is clearly a women’s issue," said Dunning, who is on the board of the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network. Upon her retirement in 2007 from the Naval Reserves, she was the only openly gay person to serve in the military.

This vast difference between the numbers of women discharged from the military may add impetus to those calling for an end to the "don’t ask" law.

The problem for women has worsened in recent years, the data gathered by the service members’ network indicate. In fiscal 2006, women made up 17 percent of the Army but 35 percent of discharges under the "don’t ask" law. One year later, women were 15 percent of Army members, yet discharges of women increased to 45 percent of the total.

Dunning, who stated publicly in 1993 that she was a lesbian, stayed in the military despite the passage later that year of the "don’t ask, don’t tell" law requiring members of the military to hide their sexual orientation. The law was characterized by then-president Bill Clinton as a "compromise" from his promise to end the ban on gays serving in the military.

"Don’t ask" wasn’t a compromise at all, says Cathy Westcott of the service members’ network. Before the law, the status of gays in the military was left to the discretion of the commander in chief; after the law, there was a mandate to discharge them. And by singling out homosexuality as a reason for discharge, the law has actually increased discrimination against gays in the military, especially women, Dunning added.

Law Made Issue of Sexuality

"The policy was supposed to make sexuality a non-issue, but it’s actually done the reverse," said Nathaniel Frank, a policy and senior research fellow at the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Michael D. Palm Center, a research institute with the primary focus on the "don’t ask, don’t tell" law.

Air Force statistics reflect a similar trend. In fiscal 2007, 20 percent of Air Force members were women yet females made up 49 percent of discharges for homosexuality, up from 36 percent in 2006. No statistics were available for other branches of the military.

The Defense Department did not respond to interview requests. But military leaders have consistently maintained that allowing lesbians and gays to serve in the armed forces would harm morale and cohesion among troops. In 1982 the Carter administration codified a long-standing policy of discharging gays, but discharges steadily diminished until the "don’t ask, don’t tell" law was passed, according to a 2005 Defense Department report.

One theory advanced by advocacy groups to explain why more women than men are discharged under the law is "lesbian baiting," in which a man approaches a woman, she rejects him, and he retaliates by accusing her of being a lesbian.

The "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy continues to be used as a weapon against women who refuse sexual overtures, especially in nontraditional fields, Westcott said. Women who give subordinates poor ratings in performance reviews risk being accused of homosexuality, too, she said.

"The standard for accusing someone of being gay is extremely low," she said.

Many Lesbians in Services

Another reason more women are discharged may be that a higher proportion of female soldiers are lesbian, said Sgt. Sonya Contreras, who was discharged from the U.S. Army in 2003 for being gay.

"There are a lot of lesbians" in the military, Contreras said. "I think lesbians are attracted to something athletic, something challenging, where they could show their physical dominance."

Heterosexual women, too, have lost their military jobs to disgruntled men and co-workers, said the Palm Center’s Frank, author of "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America," to be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2009.

In the military, Frank said, "gays are still one minority you can pick on; women are, also."

"So much of this debate is about culture and morality," he said. "A lot of the same people who are against gays in the military are against women in the military."

Sgt. Sonya Contreras

Contreras, who served as one of the Army’s top recruiters in Southern California, agreed that women suffer inordinately under "don’t ask, don’t tell."

"Women in general are harrassed ridiculously," she said. While straight women may be able to complain about their treatment, lesbians cannot, unless they want to risk triggering a humiliating investigation, she said.

Fifty percent of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network’s 100 open "don’t ask, don’t tell" cases were triggered by an accusation of homosexuality, which can be based on the flimsiest of evidence and still be treated seriously, Westcott said. Holding a friend’s hand or being seen hugging someone of the same sex can cause an investigation.

Hard to Refute Accusations

Being investigated can be traumatic, emotionally and financially, and the burden of disproving homosexuality is placed on the service member, Westcott added.

During investigations, the accused is "separated" from service, which results in lost accrual time for benefits and affects security clearance, training and sometimes pay. Service members can face repeated investigations and those exonerated may carry a stigma.

"As large as the military is, it is often the largest small town," Westcott said. "The fact that you were investigated has a tendency to follow you wherever you go."

But a change in the law and in the military’s policies toward homosexuals and bisexuals may be coming.

A landmark appeals court ruling in May, Maj. Margaret Witt v. Dept. of the Air Force, said the government must justify each individual discharge under "don’t ask, don’t tell." In other words, the military must now show that Witt, a decorated flight nurse, posed a liability in her job because of her sexuality, which she kept hidden for 19 years.

A study group comprising four high-ranking retired officers found that the military’s ban on lesbians and gays should end, according to a July 7 report released by the Palm Center. And 143 members of Congress are co-sponsoring the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal "don’t ask, don’t tell" and allow lesbians, gay men and bisexuals to serve in the armed forces. A House subcommittee will hold a hearing July 23 on "don’t ask, don’t tell."

Presidential support is the key to this measure’s passage, Frank said.

"If the political stars align, there could be change coming very quickly," he said. "I think the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy is going to end inevitably. It may happen sooner than we think."

Sherry Jones is a freelance journalist and author of "The Jewel of Medina," a novel about A’isha bint Abi Bakr, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, scheduled for publication in spring 2009 by Ediciones B in Spain.