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Military's refusal to discharge lesbian a new Catch-22

A general alleges that Lt. Robin Chaurasiya only acknowledged she was in a civil union with another woman to avoid service. Advocates say his decision shows gay troops don't undercut the military.

April 02, 2010|By Julian E. Barnes

Reporting from Washington — Lt. Robin R. Chaurasiya wasn't exactly asked, but she told anyway: She is a lesbian, and in a civil union with another woman.

Her commander at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, Lt. Gen. Robert R. Allardice, could have discharged her under the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Instead, he determined in February that she should remain in the Air Force because she acknowledged her sexual orientation for the purpose of "avoiding and terminating military service."

Chaurasiya says that is not true. But the general's reasoning has the flavor of a Catch-22: If you admit to being homosexual you can be discharged from the military, but if you admit it for the purposes of being discharged you won't be.

Yet the action is being cited by some opponents of the controversial prohibition on open gay military service as a sign of willingness to reinterpret rules after President Obama called on Congress to overturn the controversial 1993 law.

At the very least, said Nathaniel Frank, an expert on "don't ask, don't tell," the Chaurasiya case appears to turn the rationale behind the gay ban on its head.

"If commanders are ignoring or rejecting credible evidence of homosexuality because of the alleged motive of the person who makes the statement, the bottom line is they are keeping gay people in the service," said Frank, a senior research fellow at UC Santa Barbara's Palm Center. "That gives the lie that known gay people undercut the military."

Officially, "don't ask, don't tell" remains in place and service members are still being discharged for homosexual conduct. But how to handle such discharges clearly has become a delicate matter inside the Pentagon.

In a round-table interview Wednesday, Army Secretary John M. McHugh said that during a review of the policy, several soldiers had acknowledged to him that they were gay. McHugh initially said he wouldn't seek to punish them for responding candidly to his questions, but on Thursday he sought to refine that answer.

Emphasizing that "don't ask" remains law, McHugh said in a statement that he should have counseled the soldiers that anything they said could not be kept confidential and could lead to their discharge. But McHugh said he couldn't pursue punishment of the soldiers because he was unable to identify them.

Under existing regulations, the military has the ability to retain service members who say they are gay for the purpose of avoiding service, according to Cynthia Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Such rules have been used to discourage or stop recruits from falsely claiming they are gay to back out of boot camp. But it has been rare for military commanders to issue a formal finding, according to advocates for gay and lesbian service members.

If more commanders begin to use the regulation, it will result in more gays and lesbians being allowed to serve openly.

An estimated 16,000 service members have been discharged under "don't ask, don't tell."

Last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered new rules to make it tougher for third parties to accuse a member of the military of being gay.

J. Alexander Nicholson III, executive director of Servicemembers United, which represents gay veterans and service members, said there was "a clear message that the Department of Defense wants to curtail discharges more and more."

In his Feb. 25 decision ending any administrative discharge action against Chaurasiya, Allardice cited a section of the "don't ask, don't tell" law that allows military commanders to keep service members on active duty if they married a person of the same sex for the purpose of getting out of the military.

Like many cases, Chaurasiya's situation is complicated. She had left active duty in 2007 after serving one year, but was recalled to active duty in 2009.

After she was sent to Scott Air Force Base, a male former service member she had once dated forwarded to her commander a group e-mail in which Chaurasiya had written that she was a lesbian.

After an investigation, Chaurasiya submitted a memorandum to her commander declaring herself a lesbian.

"I want to be respected for it, and if I am going to be disrespected I don't want to be here," Chaurasiya said in an interview.

Chaurasiya said she did not enter into the union or declare herself a lesbian to get a discharge.

"My intention is not to get out," she said. "But if I am going to be kept in and treated unfairly either from my peers or by the military itself . . . then I want to be loud about it to bring about the change, or I do not want to be here."

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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