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'Conduct Unbecoming': In Defense of Gays on the Front Line

March 29, 1993|CONSTANCE CASEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Having service people with a strong need to prove themselves is probably not a liability. In the late 1980s, Vice Admiral Joseph S. Donnell, commander of the Navy's Atlantic fleet, composed a memo exhorting his staff to ferret out and discharge lesbian sailors.

He offered this tip for identifying lesbians: "Experience has shown that the stereotypical female homosexual in the Navy is hard-working, career-oriented, willing to put in long hours on the job and among the command's top professionals."

The villains in Shilts' story are the Naval Investigative Service and the Army Office of Special Investigations, which, as he sees it, went after gays because it was easier than dealing with drug dealers or more violent offenders.

Shilts' informants in those agencies include a young gay woman trainee in the NIS and a gay male veteran of the OSI, neither of whom was recognized as gay by colleagues. But Shilts didn't have to dig deep to discover an astonishing waste of time and money, and behavior ranging from foolish to brutal.

At one point NIS agents in and around Chicago fanned out to gay bars known to attract military personnel and began asking searching questions about someone named Dorothy. Homosexuals, they had learned, often referred to themselves as "Friends of Dorothy." The investigators didn't recognize the phrase as an allusion to the Judy Garland character in "The Wizard of Oz."

The investigative tactics are offensive; the waste of resources is maddening. An Air Force captain Shilts interviewed estimated that it had cost the service $4 million to $5 million to train him, figuring in the cost of jet fuel and aircraft time--money lost when he was forced to resign.

Not surprisingly, the services were not prepared to handle the problem of AIDS with compassion. In this section of the book, Shilts is at his sharpest and most authoritative. In general, servicemen who fell ill with AIDS in the mid-1980s were not medically retired, as service people with serious diseases customarily are, but separated, without pension or medical benefits, on grounds of homosexuality--as if AIDS were proof.

For all the seriousness of its subject, "Conduct Unbecoming," is surprisingly engrossing, entertaining and optimistic. Shilts is obviously a great interviewer, alert to those moments when people describe their humiliation or pain, and highly aware of ironic juxtapositions and funny details.

And he's certainly not a reflexive radical. He sharply criticizes the gay activists who were loath to support one gay recruit because they didn't sympathize with his desire to return to the armed forces.

"Conduct Unbecoming" is at its heart a patriotic book, full of respect for the men and women who are good soldiers and sailors. To hold the kind of outrage Shilts has and to persist in writing 700-some pages on the subject, an author has to have strong expectations that things can get better.

Former President Bush's secretary of defense, Richard Cheney, questioned by gay congressman Barney Frank, didn't defend the policy of excluding gays. Instead he answered, "I pilot a big ship. It takes a long time to turn it around." Shilts' work here is one very powerful tugboat pushing on the bow of that ship.

CONDUCT UNBECOMING: Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military, By Randy Shilts , (St. Martin's Press: $26.95)

Military Gays: A Timely Epic

"Conduct Unbecoming," Randy Shilts' epic about gays in the military, could not be more timely. Reviewer Constance Casey points out that it will hit the bookstores in mid-April--right in the middle of the six-month period President Clinton gave the Department of Defense to come up with a plan to end discrimination against homosexuals in the armed forces.

"Conduct Unbecoming," Casey writes, will inevitably be called "monumental."

"Shilts' moving stories of gay and lesbian servicemen . . . will make it much more difficult to defend the current policy. Whatever readers think about keeping gays out of the military, they'll be convinced that the policy has often been enforced cruelly and capriciously."

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