Gays in the Military: Does a Sailor's Murder Signal Deeper Problems?

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Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty

A protester opposed to the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy during a rally in New York City

Even as Pentagon lawyers begin trying to ease the "Don't ask, don't tell" prohibition on gays serving openly in the U.S. military, the murder last week of an apparently gay sailor at California's Camp Pendleton has raised new questions over the readiness of the armed forces to accept openly homosexual personnel.

Seaman August Provost of Houston was shot and killed while standing nighttime guard at his base on June 30. His body was found at about 3 a.m. after his guard shack had been torched, apparently to destroy evidence surrounding his slaying, according to Navy officials. Provost was gay, according to his family, gay activists and his MySpace page, and had reportedly "come out" to some of his Navy colleagues. Two California Democratic members of Congress, Susan Davis and Bob Filner, have asked the military to investigate whether Provost's sexual orientation was the reason for his murder. Local gay activists have also asked for such a probe, and are planning a candlelight vigil outside Camp Pendleton's gates this Friday, several hours after memorial services for Provost are to be held in Texas.

The Navy has said there is no indication that the 28-year-old sailor was the target of a hate crime, but officials also decline to specify a suspected motive. "As it stands right now, we have no indication that there is any tie to what may or may not have been his sexuality," a senior Navy officer in San Diego said Monday afternoon. This officer expressed frustration with blog and media reports saying Provost had been brutalized — in addition to being shot. "He did suffer gunshot wounds, and there was a fire in a pretty clear attempt to destroy evidence," he said. "But he was not bound, he was not gagged and he was not mutilated." At least two suspects — both sailors — have been questioned. One remains in custody and is expected to be charged.

Navy officials admit that they hope there is no link between Provost's killing and his sexual orientation, because his death comes at a delicate time for the Obama Administration on the issue of gays in the military. Following President Clinton's bumbled 1993 effort to force the military to accept openly gay personnel in its ranks, Congress — abetted by the military — passed legislation making "Don't ask, don't tell" the law. Prior to the Clinton Administration, the ban on gays serving had simply been a presidential directive that could be unilaterally reversed by the White House.

But now that it has been written into law, it will take a majority of both houses of Congress to lift the ban. The Obama Administration has asked the military for its advice on how best to do that, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that he has told Obama to make the change "in a measured way." Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week his staff is seeking ways that the law can be applied "in a more humane way."

Indeed, Provost's murder comes almost 10 years to the day that Army Private First Class Barry Winchell was killed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, after he was suspected of being gay. Gay activists argued at the time that an antigay climate at Fort Campbell played a role in Winchell's July 6, 1999, murder; the soldier convicted of his killing was sentenced to life in prison.

The Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a think tank that studies gender and sexual issues in the military, issued a legal memo on Monday detailing just what Gates could do to reduce the impact of "Don't ask, don't tell" on military personnel. (According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which opposes the ban, a total of 284 military personnel have been kicked from the ranks since President Obama came into office promising to end it.) Among other options, Gates could order the retention of all service members targeted under the law for a limited period of time by citing the nation's security needs. He could also mandate that any inquiry into the sexual orientation of a service member require his approval.

Similar tweaks in other nations' prohibitions on gays in the military have opened the way to their repeal. "In Britain and Israel, modifying enforcement was followed by an end to their bans," says Nathaniel Frank of the Palm Center. "Given the research showing that openly gay service works, as well as the political climate and public support for repeal, I'd imagine the same might happen here."