Pat Schroeder v. Colin Powell: The Congresswoman Taunts, the General Replies

Dear Colin:

For some time, I have been troubled by your comments before Congress in February about the suitability of gay and lesbian Americans for service in our nation’s armed forces.

On the one hand, I was pleased to see you admit that the exclusionary policy is no longer defended for national security purposes. As you know, two PERSEREC reports from the Department of Defense—which, I fear, are merely collecting dust on some desk at the Pentagon— concluded, “Both patriots and traitors are drawn from the class American citizen and not specifically from the class heterosexual or homosexual.”

You also admitted that the exclusion doesn’t exist because gay and lesbian Americans “are not good enough.” Rather, you explained, “homosexual behavior is inconsistent with maintaining good order and discipline.”

Indulge me further, as I underscore your words: “I mean it is difficult in a military setting where there is no privacy, where you don’t get a choice of association, where you don’t get a choice of where you live, to introduce a group of individuals… who favor a homosexual lifestyle, and put them in with heterosexuals who would prefer not to have somebody of the same sex find them sexually attractive, put them in close proximity, ask them to share the most private facilities together, the bedroom, the barracks, latrines, the showers.”

You’ll have to forgive me—once a history major, always a history major—because your shower apprehensions or privacy fears could have been written in 1942 from the Chairman of the General Board to the Secretary of the Navy:

Men on board ship live in particularly close association; in their messes, one man sits beside another; their hammocks or bunks are close together; in their common tasks they work side by side, and in their particular tasks such as those of a gun’s crew, they form a closely knit highly coordinated team. How many white men would choose, of their own accord, that their closest associates in sleeping quarters, at mess, and in a gun’s crew should be of another race? How many would accept such conditions, if required to do so, without resentment and just as a matter of course? The General Board believes that the answer is “Few, if any,” and further believes that if the issue were forced, there would be a lowering of contentment, teamwork and discipline in the service.

I am sure you are aware that your reasoning would have kept you from the mess hall a few decades ago, all in the name of good order and discipline and regardless of your dedication and conduct.

On a related matter, enclosed is a letter that twenty-five of my Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues colleagues and I sent to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, which explains how lesbian-baiting is used to harm female service members, regardless of sexual orientation.

As I can’t make much sense of your privacy defense, particularly because of its past abuse against blacks and women, would you explain it to me?

All my best, Pat Schroeder

Dear Pat,

Thank you for your recent letter concerning the position I took before Congress in February concerning homosexuals serving in the armed forces. I have given a great deal of thought to my position and continue to hold the view that the presence of homosexuals in the military is prejudicial to good order and discipline.

This is the policy of the Department of Defense and is supported by all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is also a view held by experts who have studied the sociology of the military for many years. I am including a recent article by Charles Moskos on the subject. [“Why Banning Homosexuals Still Makes Sense,” Navy Times, 30 March 1992—Ed.]

I am well aware of the attempts to draw parallels between this position and positions used years ago to deny opportunities to African-Americans. I know you are a history major, but I can assure you I need no reminders concerning the history of African-Americans in the defense of their nation and the tribulations they faced. I am a part of that history.

Skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument. I believe the privacy rights of all Americans in uniform have to be considered, especially since those rights are often infringed upon by the conditions of military service.

As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as an African-American fully conversant with history, I believe the policy we have adopted is consistent with the necessary standards of good order and discipline required in the armed forces.

Sincerely, Colin Powell

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