by David M. Halperin
The following article is reprinted from Blueboy, published in June, 1991. MIT Professor David M. Halperin chronicles the move by colleges and universities across the country to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation from the military, and specifically from ROTC. The statements and subsequent policies of higher education institutions with regard to withdrawing campus support for ROTC are discussed below, providing an important historical perspective as MIT convenes its ROTC Task Force. The most recent, and perhaps the most serious, challenge to the Department of Defense policy that bars from military service all those who do not conform to a standard of exclusive heterosexuality in their sexual practices has come from an unanticipated quarter -- the nation's colleges and universities. What has made this movement possible is the presence on some five hundred campuses of the Reserve Officers Training Corps, or ROTC. ROTC offers tuition scholarships, monetary stipends, textbook allowances, and other material benefits to qualified college students who agree to undergo military training while in school and to serve in the officer corps of the Armed Services upon graduation. In conformity with current US military policy, lesbians and gay men, as well as bisexuals (who, according to military definitions, do not exist as such and are simply assumed to be "homosexuals"), are ineligible to join ROTC or to obtain the various material benefits it provides non-gay undergraduates. The current nationwide movement to force ROTC, and by extension the Department of Defense, to stop discriminating against sexual non-conformists or to get off campus began in 1982, when Wisconsin became the first state to pass a lesbian and gay civil rights law. Two students at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Eric Jernberg and Leon Rouse, decided to ask their school to adhere to the spirit of the new law by suspending participation in the ROTC program if that program continued to violate the terms of the statute. They eventually succeeded in getting their motion passed by the Faculty Senate, but at a subsequent meeting of the general faculty, their motion was voted down. This defeat outraged Richard L. Villaseor, who in the summer of 1986 was about to begin his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. After arduous efforts to build an effective campaign and to organize the faculty, Rick managed to reverse the Milwaukee scenario: his motion was initially defeated in the Faculty Senate, but he got three times the necessary votes to convene a meeting of the general faculty, and on December 4, 1989, several months after Rick had graduated, the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, by a vote of 386 to 248, asked the Regents of the University to sever its contracts with ROTC by June, 1993, unless "those programs no longer discriminate on the grounds of sexual identity." (The Regents ultimately rejected the motion, but they lobbied the Wisconsin congressional delegation to demand that the policy be changed at the Federal level, and the University appointed a task force to work with other colleges and universities to put pressure on Washington.) The Wisconsin vote touched off an explosion of activism on campuses around the country. Local protests and actions took place at colleges and universities throughout the spring of 1990. On May 4, 1990, at 1:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, student leaders on 32 different campuses read an identical statement, distributed by Jordan Marsh, University Affairs Director at the Wisconsin Student Association in Madison, protesting Defense Department policy on sexual orientation. On November 9, 1990, less than a year after the Wisconsin vote, the American Civil Liberties Union sponsored a national organizing conference at the University of Minnesota called "About Face: Combating ROTC's Anti-Gay Policy." By that time, more than eighty schools were involved in the movement. Pitzer College in southern California had eliminated ROTC from its campus, and Rutgers University had decided to suspend financial participation in the ROTC scholarship program. Dramatic developments had also taken place at many other schools, among them the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is where I teach. I first became interested in the issue in May, 1989, when Robert Weinerman, a former MIT student on the staff of the Admissions Office, showed me a letter he had written to a committee investigating the relationship between MIT and ROTC, in which he argued that ROTC's overt and formalized policy of discrimination violated the spirit of MIT's non-discrimination clause. I quickly realized that this was one lesbian/gay-rights issue on which academic personnel could have a decisive influence at the national level: if your school has an ROTC program, you have a direct line to Washington. In January, 1990, after the Wisconsin vote -- widely reported in the lesbian and gay press -- I started up a group called Defeat Discrimination at MIT, or D-DaMIT. With Robert as our strategist, we orchestrated a campus-wide petition campaign, modeled on the Wisconsin faculty resolution. But before we were far advanced, Robert L. Bettiker, a senior in Navy ROTC, came forward with a startling story. It seems that Robb, who had not realized he was gay when he joined NROTC, had come out to his commanding officer in November, had duly been expelled from the program, and had just been ordered by the Secretary of the Navy -- over the recommendation of the local NROTC board, which had found that Robb had not intended to deceive the Navy about his sexual orientation when he joined -- to repay nearly $40,000 in NROTC scholarship support. On March 5, 1990, the day his story appeared in a progressive MIT student newspaper and the first day of our petition campaign, the New York Times reported that James Holobaugh, an Army ROTC cadet at Washington University in St. Louis and former ROTC poster-boy, had been order to repay $25,000 for identical reasons. The news quickly became a national scandal. D-DaMIT had soon gathered more than two thousand signatures. In a student referendum that involved half the undergraduate student body, a majority of those who voted and who expressed an opinion favored removing ROTC from campus within four years unless it ceased discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation -- perhaps the first time such a referendum succeeded on a college campus. On April 10, 1990, the Provost of MIT, John Deutch, a former Undersecretary of Energy under the Carter administration and a Department of Defense insider for many years, wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, in which he criticized DOD policy on sexual orientation and deplored efforts to recoup scholarship funds from ROTC cadets disenrolled for being gay. This letter, which D-DaMIT made public, may represent the first time a major Defense Department figure had visibly dissociated himself from the policy. In the resulting glare of media attention, the Navy withdrew its demands for repayment from Bettiker and another NROTC midshipman, while the Army backed down in the case of Jim Holobaugh. On October 17, 1990, the MIT Faculty, with explicit support from the students, the administration, and the Chairman of the board of trustees, approved without dissent a resolution opposing anti-gay discrimination in ROTC. The resolution provided for a five-year lobbying effort to eliminate the discriminatory policy; toward the end of the five-year period, the President of MIT will appoint a task force to assess the situation, "with the expectation that inadequate progress toward eliminating the DOD policy on sexual orientation will result in making ROTC unavailable to students beginning with the class entering in 1998." The struggle is not over. The military continues to pursue its discriminatory policy ruthlessly and vindictively. As of the summer of 1990, eight cadets in the Navy alone found themselves precisely in Robb Bettiker's former situation. In 1987 the Navy, seeking to recoup $25,600 from Peter Laska, a midshipman who had been forced by systematic harassment to drop out of NROTC at the University of Pennsylvania, placed a lien on the home of his parents, who discovered in this manner that their son was gay. And only recently, a 19-year-old Marine Corpswoman, suspected of being lesbian, targeted by a military investigation, and threatened with all sorts of punishments if she dId not reveal the names of her friends, unable to face her parents and unwilling to betray her comrades, took her own life with a service-issue firearm. How long must we wait before colleges and universities will take steps to protect students, their parents, and the quality of campus life from such institutionalized harassment? The time to act is now. And in 1995, after a promise to lift the ban on gays in the military, after a federal policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue," the struggle is still not over, and the time to act is still now. The suspected inadequacy of Clinton"s compromise on discrimination in the armed forces has been realized over the last two years as witch-hunts and persecutions of military personnel suspected of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual continue, often in blatant disregard of the executive order (see "How is Clinton's Plan Working? Don't Ask...," this page). As MIT gathers together yet another group of students and faculty to form its ROTC Task Force, it is imperative that this campus remains vigilant to the fact that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is alive and well regardless, and in some cases because, of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" order. The fact that the DOD policy on gays in the military is in direct conflict with MIT's non-discrimination policy is well-known; what remains then is for the MIT community to remedy this campus of ROTC.