The question of whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve in the US armed forces has been bandied about for years. You can always gauge how close we are to an election cycle by how often this topic surfaces; it’s one of those things — as with flag burning or posting the Decalogue in public places — that’s sure to get people riled. When people get riled, they tend to vote.
The current policy, charmingly called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, came into being during the Clinton years. It was seen as a sort of compromise at the time, but for those who wanted the ban lifted entirely on sexual orientation, it was difficult to see exactly where the compromise was. Succinctly, during enlistment, you used to be asked, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a practicing homosexual?“1 Now, they don’t ask. You don’t have to tell. That was the compromise.
The other side of the policy is that if a soldier later reveals a nonheterosexual orientation, he or she can be tried under court martial and issued a discharge, because homosexual behavior is against the military code of conduct. However, even revealing the presence of a lover, while remaining celibate when away from that person, is also grounds for discharge. The subtle message is that merely thinking about engaging in homosexual conduct is against the rules. Freedom of thought is thus quashed. This seems unreasonable in almost any light, and arguably goes against the spirit of our national founders’ intent.
Leaving aside for a moment the question about sexual orientation, this places gays and lesbians in a tough spot. There are very good reasons to want to enlist; for instance, the military can offer a leg up and a good start in life. It can be a question of patriotism. Or it might run in the family. All of these reasons are suitable for enlistment, and they’re all laudable. However, a nonheterosexual enlistee starts her or his career at an instant disadvantage. When the others are able to talk about the lovers or spouses they’re missing, a gay or lesbian soldier cannot join in the conversation. I can’t imagine this enhances a sense of camaraderie in the ranks.
Contrarily, there surely are some soldiers who would feel uncomfortable to know they were serving, living closely, and even showering with a nonheterosexual person. I’d imagine it could be pretty awkward to have to drop your clothes in a situation where you felt you might be getting ogled. Something like that probably wouldn’t lend itself to camaraderie either.
What seems to be the case among most active-duty personnel, though, is that the only real concern they have about their fellow soldiers is how well they can handle a fight. Do they keep it together when bullets are flying and explosions are thundering? Can they hit what they’re aiming at? How far can they chuck a grenade? Do they have your back? Most soldiers seem to be of the mindset that, once you’re actually in combat, your sexual behaviors are irrelevant.
Recently, a lengthy study was published wherein survey results showed that the overwhelming majority of active-duty soldiers are comfortable with the idea of serving with gay or lesbian comrades. This is not universally so, of course, but with the Marines holding out at a maximum of 30% opposition, the voices of dissent aren’t anywhere near as loud as we might think.
Usually in our society, majority carries. This doesn’t mean we should disregard the sensibilities of our servicemen and –women, though, when they raise objections. On the other hand, we shouldn’t disregard the rights of gays and lesbians to serve, if they feel motivated to do so.
I suppose we could start by asking why the objections to homosexuality exist. I’m not sure myself. I suppose some of it has to do with social conditioning; we’re shown at an early age that nonheterosexual behavior is a subject of mockery, derision, and shame; it can lead to physical violence and even death; some nations, such as Iran, kill people for homosexuality.
Some of it may be due to sensible discomfort. I really would not feel right about stripping down in front of someone whom I believed was aroused by it, if that person’s arousal was unwelcome.
Some of it is surely due to religious upbringing. In many forms of Christianity and Islam, homosexuality is regarded as sinful. (I don’t know what the outlook is in Judaism, but it’s probably similar; I don’t think it’s as much of a problem under Hinduism.)
All of these objections have some form of merit, and they’re all completely legitimate to those who have the objections. Probably the religious one is the most difficult to address rationally, but it is worth pointing out that the US armed forces don’t discriminate based on religion. You can be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, atheist, or just about anything else, and they’ll happily enlist you. I imagine that the differences between a Christian and Muslim heterosexual are considerably greater than those between a gay and a straight Christian, yet our military seems to have managed to resolve those religious differences. Bullets don’t care whom you worship, and they don’t care whom you make love with.
The discomfort about living in close quarters could be somewhat easier to handle. There’s a stereotype — particularly of gay men — that nonheterosexual people are hedonists who will seek out sex as often as possible, make unwelcome and repeated advances, and generally behave in a way unbefitting to wearing the uniform.
The reality is somewhat different. Surely if you go to a gay bar or bathhouse, you will see open advances being made, and quite a few other things besides. However, this behavior isn’t found in places such as the office, in supermarkets, or at restaurants. What this suggests to me is that gays and lesbians know where their advances may be welcome, and where they’re out of place. That’s why you see those behaviors in gay bars and bathhouses, not at the office, in supermarkets, or at restaurants.
I think it would be fair to presume that, just as they’re circumspect with their behaviors at work, gays and lesbians are not likely to be coming on to other soldiers in the shower. They know the rules, and they know who the straight people are.
Finally, we have social conditioning. I think quite a lot of that can be defused by simple exposure. If a man is uncomfortable about the idea of gay people, his views are likely to change once he’s had a chance to actually talk with and get to know a few. He might not feel completely at ease with the idea, but at least he’ll have a chance to discover that gay and straight men really aren’t all that different, except in one significant behavior — which isn’t going to be happening in the barracks anyway.
There are plenty of people outside the military who object to gays and lesbians serving, but unless they have good, rationally-defensible reasons for it, and are planning to enlist themselves, I’m not sure they should have much weight in the discussion.2 It really doesn’t affect their lives.
Sexuality and religion have a long, fraught history. I don’t know of any belief system anywhere that doesn’t have something to say, some set of rules or another, on the subject of sex and sexuality. What I find interesting is that the founders of some belief systems never actually brought up the topic. It was their followers that started putting down rules.
As an example, Abraham never mentioned sex at all, though he apparently had quite a lot of it. I don’t recall Mohammed discussing it — at least I don’t see restrictions mentioned in the Koran — and it wasn’t a subject Jesus ever spoke of either, beyond forgiving an adulteress. Siddhartha Gautama made mention of it only to the extent of warning monks away from it, but that was within a larger context.
In Buddhism, there is discussion of the ten nonvirtuous actions. These are loosely divided into categories of action in mind, action in body, and action in speech. Sexual misconduct is one of the three nonvirtuous actions of body (along with killing and stealing), and interpretation of meaning is as diverse in Buddhism as it is in any other mature belief system. That is, some Christian sects reject any kind of sex outside of marriage; some reject sexual excess; some reject homosexuality. Some even forbid masturbation. Buddhism has a similar diversity. Some sects forbid oral sex; some forbid any kind of non-marital sex; some forbid non-procreative sex.
Loosely, Buddhism’s ground is to avoid incest, rape, sex by dishonesty (“I’ll still respect you in the morning,” etc.), and sex with those still under the protection of their family.3 By and large, in the more expansive systems, that’s it. There’s no mention made of homosexuality, certainly not by Gautama, so it’s held by the more liberal-minded practitioners that same-sex intercourse isn’t regarded any differently from any other kind of sex.
However, Buddhism’s reasoning is not the same as what you’ll find in the Abrahamic religions. Under Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the proscribed forms of sex are seen as sinful, something rejected by their god. It can put your soul in peril. Buddhism has a different take: your soul won’t be in peril, but your enlightenment will.
On one level, the ten nonvirtuous actions all add to social and individual strife, which is reason enough to avoid them; but some of them can end up anchoring you in a cycle of stimulation. You may get so attached to the thrill of sex, for instance, that it dominates your mind and interferes with keeping to the path of nonattachment, preventing you from recognizing the fundamental impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of existence. Since it’s vital (in Buddhism) to see impermanence and unsatisfactoriness clearly, any excessive behavior — including sexual excess — is considered unskillful. Not precisely wrong, but certainly not ideal.
Where things can get difficult is when a practitioner feels he needs certainty in the form of rules. Some people are much more comfortable with a clear set of boundaries, with explicit injunctions against doing this, saying that, and eating the other thing. Some forms of Buddhism do have these rules, but those forms are a little hard to find in the western world.4 It’s not that Buddhism is particularly permissive; it’s just because Buddhism is, at its base, little more than a philosophical framework which can fit well into almost any setting. As such, its adaptability can make it hard to pin anything down with it, particularly in a liberal society.
In practice, this means that it’s up to each individual Buddhist to decide for herself where the boundaries are, what is unskillful, what interferes with her path to realization, and what qualifies as outright misconduct. Many Buddhists spend a lot of time thinking about these things, constantly putting their drives and behaviors under a microscope.
Additionally it can be argued that Buddhism is, by its very nature, plastic. This is probably a good thing. I can assure you that if the Theravada behavioral requirements for monks were strictly imposed universally, Buddhism wouldn’t have made its way to Tibet, China, Japan, and eventually the western world. No one would have wanted to get involved.
Gautama was impermanent. Societies are impermanent. Social customs and mores are impermanent. Therefore, elaborate rules based in one society are not to be attached to another. Really the only definite aspects of the Dharma — Buddhist beliefs — are the four noble truths and the eightfold path. Everything else is commentary. Similarly, the most important practice of Buddhism is meditation, particularly vipassana (mindfulness) meditation. Altars, incense, and mantras are unnecessary, and might be hindrances.
So where does this leave us in terms of Buddhism and homosexuality? My sense of it is, simply, that if you’re not engaging in obsessive behavior, and if you’re not explicitly harming another by your behavior, most sexual activity is acceptable — just as with other behaviors, such as what we eat, what we drink, what languages we speak, and so on. Furthermore, I don’t think we can ask a man or woman to serve, fight, and possibly die for this country while at the same time telling them they are not allowed to love whom they will, and are not allowed to be honest about it with their comrades-in-arms.
I don’t see a solid Buddhist reason to forbid gays and lesbians serving in the military, nor do I see any other defensible reason; and if that is the path they choose, it is my wish for them that they tread it well, with honor, and with dignity.
1. Witty rejoinders included, “No, I’m an expert”, and “I practice every chance I get, honey”.
2. This includes retired soldiers as well as career civilians, since the retirees are no longer on active duty and won’t be serving with anyone — gay, straight, or whatever else.
3. In addition to children, this means those who may be handicapped or otherwise incapacitated.
4. The Buddhist school that is most familiar to the western world, and that has the most rigid set of rules, is probably Zen.