ROTC Under Fire

The campus movement to end anti-gay discrimmination in the US armed forces

by David M. Halperin

The following article is reprinted from Blueboy, published in June,
1991. MIT Professor David M. Halperin chronicles the move by colleges
and universities across the country to eliminate discrimination on the
basis of sexual orientation from the military, and specifically from
ROTC. The statements and subsequent policies of higher education
institutions with regard to withdrawing campus support for ROTC are
discussed below, providing an important historical perspective as MIT
convenes its ROTC Task Force.
	The most recent, and perhaps the most serious, challenge to
the Department of Defense policy that bars from military service all
those who do not conform to a standard of exclusive heterosexuality in
their sexual practices has come from an unanticipated quarter -- the
nation's colleges and universities. What has made this movement
possible is the presence on some five hundred campuses of the Reserve
Officers Training Corps, or ROTC. ROTC offers tuition scholarships,
monetary stipends, textbook allowances, and other material benefits to
qualified college students who agree to undergo military training
while in school and to serve in the officer corps of the Armed
Services upon graduation. In conformity with current US military
policy, lesbians and gay men, as well as bisexuals (who, according to
military definitions, do not exist as such and are simply assumed to
be "homosexuals"), are ineligible to join ROTC or to obtain the
various material benefits it provides non-gay undergraduates.
	The current nationwide movement to force ROTC, and by
extension the Department of Defense, to stop discriminating against
sexual non-conformists or to get off campus began in 1982, when
Wisconsin became the first state to pass a lesbian and gay civil
rights law. Two students at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee,
Eric Jernberg and Leon Rouse, decided to ask their school to adhere to
the spirit of the new law by suspending participation in the ROTC
program if that program continued to violate the terms of the
statute. They eventually succeeded in getting their motion passed by
the Faculty Senate, but at a subsequent meeting of the general
faculty, their motion was voted down. This defeat outraged Richard
L. Villaseor, who in the summer of 1986 was about to begin his
sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. After
arduous efforts to build an effective campaign and to organize the
faculty, Rick managed to reverse the Milwaukee scenario: his motion
was initially defeated in the Faculty Senate, but he got three times
the necessary votes to convene a meeting of the general faculty, and
on December 4, 1989, several months after Rick had graduated, the
faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, by a vote of 386 to
248, asked the Regents of the University to sever its contracts with
ROTC by June, 1993, unless "those programs no longer discriminate on
the grounds of sexual identity." (The Regents ultimately rejected the
motion, but they lobbied the Wisconsin congressional delegation to
demand that the policy be changed at the Federal level, and the
University appointed a task force to work with other colleges and
universities to put pressure on Washington.)
	The Wisconsin vote touched off an explosion of activism on
campuses around the country. Local protests and actions took place at
colleges and universities throughout the spring of 1990. On May 4,
1990, at 1:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, student leaders on 32
different campuses read an identical statement, distributed by Jordan
Marsh, University Affairs Director at the Wisconsin Student
Association in Madison, protesting Defense Department policy on sexual
orientation. On November 9, 1990, less than a year after the Wisconsin
vote, the American Civil Liberties Union sponsored a national
organizing conference at the University of Minnesota called "About
Face: Combating ROTC's Anti-Gay Policy." By that time, more than
eighty schools were involved in the movement. Pitzer College in
southern California had eliminated ROTC from its campus, and Rutgers
University had decided to suspend financial participation in the ROTC
scholarship program. Dramatic developments had also taken place at
many other schools, among them the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, which is where I teach.
	I first became interested in the issue in May, 1989, when
Robert Weinerman, a former MIT student on the staff of the Admissions
Office, showed me a letter he had written to a committee investigating
the relationship between MIT and ROTC, in which he argued that ROTC's
overt and formalized policy of discrimination violated the spirit of
MIT's non-discrimination clause. I quickly realized that this was one
lesbian/gay-rights issue on which academic personnel could have a
decisive influence at the national level: if your school has an ROTC
program, you have a direct line to Washington. In January, 1990, after
the Wisconsin vote -- widely reported in the lesbian and gay press --
I started up a group called Defeat Discrimination at MIT, or
D-DaMIT. With Robert as our strategist, we orchestrated a campus-wide
petition campaign, modeled on the Wisconsin faculty resolution. But
before we were far advanced, Robert L. Bettiker, a senior in Navy
ROTC, came forward with a startling story. It seems that Robb, who had
not realized he was gay when he joined NROTC, had come out to his
commanding officer in November, had duly been expelled from the
program, and had just been ordered by the Secretary of the Navy --
over the recommendation of the local NROTC board, which had found that
Robb had not intended to deceive the Navy about his sexual orientation
when he joined -- to repay nearly $40,000 in NROTC scholarship
support. On March 5, 1990, the day his story appeared in a progressive
MIT student newspaper and the first day of our petition campaign, the
New York Times reported that James Holobaugh, an Army ROTC cadet at
Washington University in St. Louis and former ROTC poster-boy, had
been order to repay $25,000 for identical reasons. The news quickly
became a national scandal.
	D-DaMIT had soon gathered more than two thousand
signatures. In a student referendum that involved half the
undergraduate student body, a majority of those who voted and who
expressed an opinion favored removing ROTC from campus within four
years unless it ceased discriminating on the basis of sexual
orientation -- perhaps the first time such a referendum succeeded on a
college campus. On April 10, 1990, the Provost of MIT, John Deutch, a
former Undersecretary of Energy under the Carter administration and a
Department of Defense insider for many years, wrote a letter to
Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, in which he criticized DOD policy
on sexual orientation and deplored efforts to recoup scholarship funds
from ROTC cadets disenrolled for being gay. This letter, which D-DaMIT
made public, may represent the first time a major Defense Department
figure had visibly dissociated himself from the policy. In the
resulting glare of media attention, the Navy withdrew its demands for
repayment from Bettiker and another NROTC midshipman, while the Army
backed down in the case of Jim Holobaugh. On October 17, 1990, the MIT
Faculty, with explicit support from the students, the administration,
and the Chairman of the board of trustees, approved without dissent a
resolution opposing anti-gay discrimination in ROTC. The resolution
provided for a five-year lobbying effort to eliminate the
discriminatory policy; toward the end of the five-year period, the
President of MIT will appoint a task force to assess the situation,
"with the expectation that inadequate progress toward eliminating the
DOD policy on sexual orientation will result in making ROTC
unavailable to students beginning with the class entering in 1998."
	The struggle is not over. The military continues to pursue its
discriminatory policy ruthlessly and vindictively. As of the summer of
1990, eight cadets in the Navy alone found themselves precisely in
Robb Bettiker's former situation. In 1987 the Navy, seeking to recoup
$25,600 from Peter Laska, a midshipman who had been forced by
systematic harassment to drop out of NROTC at the University of
Pennsylvania, placed a lien on the home of his parents, who discovered
in this manner that their son was gay. And only recently, a
19-year-old Marine Corpswoman, suspected of being lesbian, targeted by
a military investigation, and threatened with all sorts of punishments
if she dId not reveal the names of her friends, unable to face her
parents and unwilling to betray her comrades, took her own life with a
service-issue firearm.
	How long must we wait before colleges and universities will
take steps to protect students, their parents, and the quality of
campus life from such institutionalized harassment? The time to act is
	And in 1995, after a promise to lift the ban on gays in the
military, after a federal policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't
Pursue," the struggle is still not over, and the time to act is still
now. The suspected inadequacy of Clinton"s compromise on
discrimination in the armed forces has been realized over the last two
years as witch-hunts and persecutions of military personnel suspected
of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual continue, often in blatant
disregard of the executive order (see "How is Clinton's Plan Working?
Don't Ask...," this page). As MIT gathers together yet another group
of students and faculty to form its ROTC Task Force, it is imperative
that this campus remains vigilant to the fact that discrimination on
the basis of sexual orientation is alive and well regardless, and in
some cases because, of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" order. The fact
that the DOD policy on gays in the military is in direct conflict with
MIT's non-discrimination policy is well-known; what remains then is
for the MIT community to remedy this campus of ROTC.

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