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The scar on the Moskos legacy

Peter Jackson

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Northwestern Professor Charles Moskos, who died in May, was usually noted in these pages for one of two things. They were (1) teaching popular undergraduate sociology courses and (2) authoring the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gay service. Here’s an example from 2002: Sociology Prof. Charles Moskos, who helped write the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy under the Clinton administration, said the linguists “should be ashamed that they put their own egos ahead of the greater gay cause.”

There, Moskos was commenting on the quest of a linguistics professor to reverse the military’s policy, which had led to the discharge of nine gay linguists, including six trained in Arabic, in the year after Sept. 11.

That was just one of the many bizarre rationales Moskos employed to defend the policy after it went into effect in July 1993. My best guess is that he thought the linguists, knowing they’d get the boot if they came out, deliberately diminished the nation’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks. Presumably, this would not endear gays to the broader American public, setting back their “cause.”

What really set back the gay cause, if such a thing exists, was the military’s anti-gay policy. It enshrined into government dogma the belief that, at best, gays could not keep their hands and eyes to themselves, and at worst, that being gay rendered one unable to serve the military honorably. If history is any guide, that derailed progress toward equal rights for gays in society, too.

When President Truman ordered the racial desegregation of the military, the American south remained a divided society governed by Jim Crow and the noose. Still, by 1966 a young sociologist advanced the bold claim that “the desegregation of the military has served to bring closer” the “advent of integrated society in this country.” His name was Charles Moskos, and his work on the subject propelled him into his standing as a pioneering military sociologist whose brilliance could stimulate 600 students to pay attention in lecture.

How did Moskos go from understanding the benefits of desegration to abetting the implementation of “Don’t ask”? Even if it made some soldiers squeamish, wouldn’t the service of openly gay soldiers, airmen and sailors make society more accepting of homosexuals? Why wasn’t that a goal worth achieving?

In the ’90s, a government-commissioned study concluded that soldiers would accept open gays as long as top brass supported the changes (the Pentagon squashed the report). Anecdotal reports indicated that, over time, straight soldiers became more accepting of counterparts who they knew to be gay, just as white soldiers did with their black counterparts during the ’50s. But that wasn’t the focus of the Senate hearings in ’93 where the policy changes were discussed.

“When I got to the capitol, I found out it was all rigged,” Judith Steihm, a panelist from Florida International University, said in 2000. “The hearings began, and Moskos said, ‘Well, what about the showers? What about the privacy rights of the straights?'”

Moskos’ testimony at the hearings, his fellow panelists complained, hinged on opinion polls showing officers opposed to gays serving openly, rather than on sociological research.

“It’s an incredibly insidious role Moskos has played in the policy process,” another panelist, University of California at Santa Barbara professor Aaron Belkin, said. “He has used his academic credentials to pretend that the policy is based on academic evidence when in fact it’s based on homophobia.”

Moskos’ public statements on the subject do little to dispel the idea that his backing of the policy had more to do with simple bigotry than reasoned study:

“In a heterosexual environment, you can do a lot of patting people on the ass, hugging, and all that, which might not be possible among open gays.” (2000)

“I should not be forced to shower with a woman. I should not be forced to shower with an open gay. I would not want to fight for a country in which privacy issues are so trampled upon. Those are the conditions of concentration camps.” (2000)

“Prudes have rights, too. There are three times in life when you are forced to live with people you might not otherwise choose: the military, jail – which I don’t think gays want to use as a model for gay relations – and the freshman dorm. The only way you can get out of a dorm situation is when you have a gay and a straight, and one wants out. Otherwise, you have to grin and bear it for a year.” (2003)

There are a few ways of understanding Moskos here. Perhaps he wanted credit for a legacy-affirming policy (“Don’t ask” made the first line of his New York Times obituary.) Perhaps he didn’t think equal rights for gays was a worthy goal, the way desegregation was. Perhaps his freshman year roommate at Princeton had been gay, and Moskos couldn’t deal with it. Unfortunately, we’ll never have the chance to ask.

peterjackson2007@u.northwestern.edu

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