THERE WAS NEVER any doubt that the events of September 11 would change politics in the United States. And they have. Just ask President Bush — widely ridiculed every day of his presidency up to September 10 and now considered by a majority in the polls to be doing a competent, even an excellent, job. But few could have predicted that the terrorist attacks’ effects on the gay-and-lesbian-rights movement would be so, well, perverse. The public conversation about gay rights has always had an edge of the unexpected to it; in the mid 1990s, for example, even Barry Goldwater, whose 1950s-style conservatism led him to attack the integration of public schools, actually supported lifting the ban on queers in the military. But over the past few months, there seems to be a new shocker every day.
Consider a June 11 piece by Nicholas Kristof, a liberal op-ed columnist for the New York Times. In "The End of an Uncivil War," Kristof observes that the "historical mutual sneering" between universities and the military is coming to an end. He suggests that we would all benefit if ROTC were welcomed back to colleges and universities, after having been banned from many campuses during the war in Vietnam. The trouble with this argument is what he makes of the more-recent past, for while some schools began reinstating ROTC in the 1980s, gay student activists revived the anti-ROTC issue by claiming that the US military’s anti-gay stance violates the non-discrimination polices of many universities. (They were so successful that three years ago Congress retaliated by passing an amendment to the Solomon Amendment, which prohibited federal aid for work-study in certain graduate programs in schools that had banned ROTC.)
So what does Kristof have to say about this? "At Harvard, many students and faculty members are hostile to military and R.O.T.C. training because the military discriminates against gays. It’s a fair point," he allows, "and the discrimination is worth fighting. But it was the American military that deposed the Taliban, the most viciously anti-gay regime in the world, one that executed gays by knocking over walls on top of them. America’s military does discriminate against gays and is a bastion of anti-gay attitudes, but it has also done more for gay rights — albeit in Afghanistan — than all the gay organizations in the Ivy League put together."
Is he serious? Never mind that America’s military played a role in helping the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan in 1986; or that one of the first bombs to be dropped on the Taliban strongholds in Kabul carried the message hijack this fags, scrawled by patriotic and presumably heterosexual soldiers; or that the devout Muslims of the Northern Alliance are probably no better disposed toward "gay rights" than the Taliban. Kristof’s notion that gay rights have been advanced by the US military is downright Orwellian: the US military has never done anything with the purpose of promoting "gay rights." An argument — on political or even moral grounds — can be made, if one were so inclined, that American universities should welcome ROTC back onto their campuses. But Kristof’s odd justification for doing so adds little to the discussion.
But it’s not fair to single out Kristof alone. The deeply conservative underpinnings of his argument — which sets up the fall of the Taliban as a strike for gay freedom and implies that our increasingly intrusive government and stronger military are the solution to gay oppression — was already gaining wide currency in the gay-and-lesbian movement before his silly column was published.