Professor Shannon Gilreath (JD ’02) explores ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Most discussions about gays in the military revolve around gays’ constitutional right to serve. But for Professor Shannon Gilreath, the more interesting question is whether gays should participate in an institution that shows no signs of growing more open to them, and has made life worse for gay men and women around the world.

“Our participation in the United States military is keeping many other gays around the globe on their knees,” he said.

Gilreath spoke with students and faculty on Oct. 27 in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library auditorium. His talk, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Publish: Reflections on the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” detailed efforts to repeal the policy, and critiqued the gay rights movement’s focus and strategy.

Gilreath teaches courses in Sexuality and Law, Religion and Law and Gender Studies in the law school. He is a member of the core faculty in the Women’s and Gender Studies department and serves as an associate professor at the Wake Forest Divinity School. He served as an adviser to the Pentagon on legal questions around the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

Gays have a constitutional right to serve in the military, Gilreath said, and they seek to serve for many of the same reasons that straight people do — to serve their country and protect its freedoms.

But a deeper look at what is happening to gays in the United States, and abroad, should make gays ask another question: Do they want to serve?

“I think it’s fair for any gay soldier to ask the question whether he or she should be part of the march to oblivion,” he said.

Violence against gays and lesbians in the United States rose 30 percent in 2009 and 2010. Gay youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide.

The situation in the military reflects American society’s general hostility to gays. Soldiers who complain of homophobic violence and harassment are asked what they did to provoke harassment.

On the surface, the 911 attacks were not about sexual orientation, Gilreath said, but the motivating force behind them was a heterosexual religious dynamic, in which a vision of paradise includes men spending eternity with female virgins.

In the United States such preachers as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Rev. Pat Robertson explained the attacks as God’s wrath against gay people.

Surviving same sex partners of those killed in the attacks had trouble getting information about their partners as well as claiming money set aside for the victims.

The War on Terror was often characterized as a humanitarian effort to rid the Middle East of the evil embodied in Saddam Hussein. But, Gilreath said, American intervention and occupation made life worse for gays in the region. It’s difficult to see what is humanitarian about that.

Before the Gulf War, the gay subculture  in Iraq was mostly tolerated. When U.S. military forces arrived in the region in 2003, soldiers taunted gay Iraqis and often spread word of their hideouts. Such a climate was not only hostile to gay Iraqis, but to gay U.S. soldiers.

In Saudi Arabia, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, gays are often publicly executed for their “crimes,” he said.

International law should condemn such acts, but that is often seen as interfering with cultural and religious norms.

A member of the audience asked if by becoming part of the military, gays might not participate in changing its culture.

Gilreath said that he is not optimistic. The military is not a place where people can express their opinions freely and question authority.

He does not believe all straight people are hostile to gays or that progress has not been made, Gilreath said. But institutions like the military must be critiqued if we want change, and his job is to look at the big picture.

“My job is to point to an emergency,” he said. “If individuals are offended along the way, well, that’s life.”