Peter Laska always wanted to be in the military. "I had always grown up with a really strong sense of being patriotic and doing my part for the country," the 1988 College graduate said last week. "I wanted to protect the freedom of the individual, freedom of speech." But shortly after joining the University's Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps program, Laska discovered one thing blocking his path to becoming a military officer -- by the end of his second year at the University, Laska realized he was gay. "I knew that my sexuality had no bearing on my worth as a person, or upon my abilities as an officer candidate," he said. But ROTC, like the military in general, has long excluded gay men and lesbian women and explicitly forbids them from service. And Laska said that in the beginning of his junior year, the University's NROTC unit began an "officially condoned program of harassment" against him. He said it included "intimidation, verbal abuse, and interrogations." NROTC Commander Captain Lyle Lewis, who was not at the University when Laska was enrolled, denies that any such program exists at the unit. He said if he learned of one, he "wouldn't let it happen." Laska said he informed NROTC of his homosexuality in his junior year and was subsequently placed on leave and left the program. Laska said he thought that marked the end of his relationship with the armed forces. But in November 1989, he received "a letter demanding that I. . . pay the Navy $25,600" -- the amount the Navy had doled out for his ROTC scholarship. University ROTC commander Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Warnement said that such a request is standard. "We have the authority to revoke the scholarship and require repayment of the scholarship to the taxpayers," he said last week. Laska said while the financial pressure being exerted by the Navy "is a great concern," he said "they're certainly going to have to fight me all the way." Laska took his fight to University officials by writing a letter, addressed both to President Sheldon Hackney and the University Council, explaining his situation and his allegations of discrimination. This letter served as a catalyst for a heated debate across the University, and the University has since joined a national effort to push the Department of Defense to change its policy. · The University's Nondiscrimination Policy states that the University "does not discriminate on the basis of race, color sex, sexual orientation . . . in the administration of its educational policies, programs or activities, admissions policies and procedures, scholarship and loan programs, employment, recreational, athletic or other University- administered programs." At the same time, Naval policy states that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service. The presence in the naval environment of persons who engage in homosexual conduct . . . seriously impairs the accomplishment of the naval mission." U.S. Army spokesperson Major Robert Shepherd said last week that this is the policy of the Army and all the armed forces. "If there is overt homosexuality, that has been a disqualifier for a good amount of time," he said. Until Laska's case went before University Council last May, the University's and the military's opposing views went virtually uncontested. But Laska's complaint has brought the inconsistencies in policies to the forefront, forcing the University to choose between the two. "The core [problem] is that they find gays and lesbians not fit for military service," Robert Schoenberg, assistant director of Student Life Programs, said last week. "It's the principle. This institution has a policy that says you can't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation." Many student and faculty leaders agree. At the May 1990, University Council meeting, members unanimously approved a resolution calling for an evaluation of ROTC's compliance with this policy. The resolution states that the ROTC program will be kicked off campus in June 1993 "unless it adheres to the spirit and the letter of the University's non-discrimination policy with respect to sexual and affectional preference." "People were very angry at the University Council [meeting]," said Education Professor Kenneth George, chairperson of the Faculty Senate Conduct Committee, which is investigating the University's ROTC and NROTC units. "To get a letter from an undergraduate about how he had been harrassed . . . they were incensed and passed this motion." Microbiology Professor Robert Davies, then chairperson of the Faculty Senate, said while there was considerable discussion in Council over the resolution, there was universal accord. "To everyone's surprise, it passed virtually unanimously," he said last week. "We all felt we should stand by the University's [nondiscrimination] policy." "I think it's quite unacceptable that the Army continues this vendetta against gays and lesbians," he added. The resolution also calls for the University to work with other universities to "pressure the Department of Defense to abolish its policy of discrimination against gay men and lesbian women." "It seems clear that if ROTC would accept gays and lesbians, then there would not be a problem keeping them on campus," George said. "If the ROTC is willing to change, then ROTC can stay on campus." But discussion about the issue has gone beyond the University Council's monthly meetings. Susan Garfinkel, chairperson of the Graduate and Professional Students Assembly, said GSAC last year passed a resolution calling for an investigation of ROTC on campus. "Discrimination against individuals within our society on the basis of ascribed category is an ongoing problem," she said last week "[It] should not exist within a university where a diversity of intellectual pursuits is valued." Undergraduate Assembly representative You-Lee Kim said she is preparing a resolution to present to the UA "demand[ing] that the ROTC, by the end of the upcoming academic year, either resolve its conflict with University policy, or get off campus." But Kim said she is not convinced that the resolution will pass. "It's going to be a bureaucratic mess, but I think it needs to be pushed," she said. "As student leaders, we should be on the forefront and not be reactionary, but very proactive." "If people want to serve their country, their sexual preference shouldn't have anything to do with it," she added. And Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Alliance members agree wholeheartedly. Past co-chairperson Sheryl Rose said LGBA is watching the issue with interest. "To a certain degree, the issue, whether to allow ROTC to stay on campus challenges [the University's] integrity," the Engineering senior said last week. "It's a seemingly flagrant violation [of University policy] and the beliefs here that one does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation." While the University Council can pass resolutions, they are neither binding nor do they set University policy, according to Almarin Phillips, current chairperson of the University Council. The decision to remove the ROTC units from the University ultimately lies with President Hackney, several administrators said last week, who would make his decision after possible consultation with the Trustees. "He is free as the chief executive officer to treat [resolutions] as purely advisory," Phillips said. "[But] he is amazingly sensitive to what goes on in University Council." Assistant to the President Nick Constan said Hackney is very concerned about the issue, adding that if the committee investigating ROTC finds that it does discriminate against gays and lesbians, Hackney "would see it as a violation [of University policy.]" "It certainly is a dilemma that he understands," Constan added, saying Hackney has traditionally followed University Council recommendations. · But in trying to force changes in the ROTC program, the University is not just taking on its own program, but the entire Pentagon. NROTC head Lewis explained that his hands are tied when it comes to the policy. "It's [Department of Defense] policy," he said. "It has to do with all the armed forces." ROTC head Warnement agreed, saying that the University's unit is simply following orders. "I have absolutely no impact on that policy," he said. "I don't make it or influence it. We simply implement it." Army spokesperson Shepherd said the military itself cannot change Pentagon policy. He said only civilian government officials, including the Secretary of Defense and the Congress. Constan said that, in accordance to the University Council's resolution, Hackney has been pressing government officials to change the policy. He said the president wrote to Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney this summer -- joining several other schools, including Harvard University, Yale University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- in expressing his concern with DOD policy. In Washington, D.C., a handful of congressmen have been pushing the issue. Representative Gerry Studds (D-Mass.), one of only a few openly gay congressmen, has been at the forefront of the fight. Kate Dyer, an aide to Studds, said four prominent consortiums of universities have also asked that DOD explain its policy. She said together, they represent about 98 percent of all colleges and universities in the country. She also said their request was denied. But military officials say they have no plans to change the current policy. Pentagon spokesperson Major Doug Hart said last week that the DOD has only been contacted by "half a dozen" universities over the last year and is not concerned by current requests by the institutions to change their policy or leave campuses. "We of course hope that universities would allow" the units to stay, he said. "[But] DOD policy is very firm."Comments powered by Disqus
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