Sexuality in America 
Manning the Military

Attitudes to homosexuality in the American armed forces and the implications of Bradley Manning's trial

"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell": The flag of the United States juxtaposed with the LGBT flag. Photo by colindunn via Flickr.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: The flag of the United States juxtaposed with the LGBT flag. Photo by colindunn via Flickr.

On the same day that President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, an openly homosexual American solider experienced his 714th day of incarceration. He had not been convicted of any crime. Bradley Manning, the alleged Wikileaks informer, has been in custody since May 2010, and was in solitary confinement for nine months.

What is most striking about the case, however, is the degree to which it has been sexualised. Not only have Manning’s reputation and credibility been attacked using his homosexuality, but his defence centres on the assertion that he struggled with gender identity issues. As a result of having to suppress his homosexuality due to the prevailing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, Manning’s defence deems that he was not mentally fit to be given access to classified information, and as such the blame for the leak lies with his superiors.

That homosexuality can be considered a defence in such a case seems to undermine both the work done by LGBT rights groups and the progress that the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ represents. To view it as a plea of homosexuality, however, is to misunderstand the issue at hand. Manning’s defence is more one of aggravated mental disturbance than of sexuality, for all this aggravation was a consequence of his sexuality and the military’s reaction to it.

Questions must be asked of an institution that drove a man to such extremes that he would go for a weapons rack during a counselling session, send pictures of himself in women’s dress to his commanding officer and potentially leak thousands of sensitive documents. Whether he was responsible for the leak or not, his situation hardly reflects well on the American military.

A Brave New World?

For the Obama administration, this is not the time for embarrassing indictments of intolerance in the military to come to light. Following the landmark repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, Obama has taken a pro-LGBT stance on the Defence of Marriage Act, the Hate Crimes Protection Act, the Affordable Care Act, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In this light, the administration’s support for same-sex marriage seems almost like a natural progression.

Judging by the action it has taken, the administration certainly seems to be trying to promote a pro-LGBT agenda, and the rhetoric of its leading politicians underlines this stance. In a recent statement, Obama promised Americans that “together we can continue to build the more perfect union, in which LGBT Americans have the same legal rights and responsibilities as every American.” Hillary Clinton, in an address to the United Nations last December, described the issue of LGBT rights as “one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time”.

There appear, then, to be both an awareness of the problems at hand and the political will to devote time and resources to solving them. Yet there are still misgivings as to how genuine the White House’s progressive sentiment may prove to be. Obama’s line on his “evolving” stance towards LGBT issues does not sound entirely convincing. His Vice President, Joe Biden, has claimed that a similar change of heart lies behind his recently declared support for same-sex marriage.

The string of fundraising events following Obama’s announcement will have done nothing to dissuade cynics, who see the administration as chasing votes and funds for November’s presidential election. The night after the announcement was made, Obama attended a fundraising party at George Clooney’sLos Angeleshome that was reportedly expected to raise US$15 million (£9.76 million). Whether this is seen as cashing in on a fashionable political stance, or as procuring the necessary monetary support for a radical and progressive position to make a difference in reality, it does not paint Obama’s decision in the most flattering of lights.

A Rainbow Nation

In March, an American solider raised the rainbow flag of the LGBT movement over a military base inAfghanistan. A photo of the event was posted on Facebook, and was almost instantly picked up by anti-LGBT groups and websites. An event that could have symbolised increased military tolerance and progressive feeling instead became the target for homophobic vitriol. In a way, this incident highlightsAmerica’s greatest problem regarding LGBT issues – that of ingrained prejudice.

Given that homosexuality has only been legal in every state since 2003,Americahas come a long way. Led by progressive action and declarations of intent from the top of the political establishment, much has been done to aid the LGBT cause through legislation and education. What is lacking, though, is action that truly changes the deep-seated prejudice evident in some quarters.

Dan Choi, an LGBT activist who was himself discharged from the army on the grounds of his sexuality, declared that Manning “is not the one on trial, theUnited StatesofAmericais on trial”.Americahas undoubtedly taken much needed steps along the path to equality. When Bradley Manning goes on trial,Americawill discover how far along that path it stands.