Repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' stirs national ROTC debate

· January 11, 2011, 10:01 pm   ·  Updated January 12, 2011, 12:00 am

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Following the Dec. 22 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — the provision that prevented lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from openly serving in the military ­— a national debate has emerged over whether Reserve Officers’ Training Corps should be reinstated on Ivy League campuses that had previously cut the program.

Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Brown universities, as well as Dartmouth College, banned ROTC programs during the Vietnam War. The decision, according to Penn LGBT Center Director Bob Schoenberg, was “a philosophical objection for the most part, based in earlier years on opposition to the war, and later on opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” With the enactment of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” provision in 1993, tension between the LGBT and ROTC communities deepened.

Despite this tension and the actions of its peer institutions, Penn never banned its Naval ROTC program. It has been active on campus since 1940, albeit in small numbers — the Class of 2010 graduated 35 students overall from the program, according to Schoenberg. The current debate on Penn’s campus, therefore, concerns not the reinstatement of military programs, but the future of the relationship between the ROTC and LGBT communities.

In describing the current dynamic between the two groups, LGBT Center Associate Director Erin Cross said, “We don’t really have a relationship. In the past, LGBT students have served by virtue of being discreet. Some served openly and were discharged, often quite painfully.”

Penn ROTC representatives declined to comment on the current relationship between the groups.

Now that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed, the relationship could “conceivably” progress if ROTC leaders are willing to “work toward being more welcoming and sensitive to their new LGBT members,” Schoenberg said. “If anything, it will be ROTC reaching out to us.”

College junior and Lambda Alliance Political Chairman Victor Galli also emphasized the importance of a welcoming environment for LGBT individuals in the military. “Because there have been instances of bullying in the cases where gender and sexual expression have been limited, it should be the next step to allow and accept gender expression in the military,” he said.

Conversely, “there needs to be a climate that is open and accepting toward the military,” said Sally Rubenstone, senior adviser at College Confidential. “Any institution that claims diversity as a goal can’t choose what type of diversity is or is not acceptable.”

While Rubenstone stressed that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” won’t immediately bring about a “180-degree change in attitude” for either group, she said some of the past tensions may begin to abate.

Galli, too, was optimistic about the effects of the repeal. “The permeation of the LGBT community into other cultural facets,” he said, “is one more step to bridging a gap.”

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