A culture challenge for the military

The Navy’s decision Tuesday to relieve an aircraft carrier captain of his command over videos containing anti-gay slurs highlights the difficulty the military faces in adapting its culture now that homosexuals will be allowed to serve openly.

The videos produced by Capt. Owen Honors were broadcast aboard the Norfolk, Va.-based aircraft carrier Enterprise four years ago, when Honors was serving as the vessel’s second in command. The crude, mocking references to gays reflect an insensitivity that remains prevalent in parts of the military, according to current and former service members.

“Most U.S. military units, especially those in combat, are kind of hyper-macho,” said a former Army infantry officer who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “In that environment, it’s not uncommon to hear homophobic slurs that would be unacceptable in larger societal discourse.”

Adm. John Harvey, head of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, made no reference to the slurs in the videos when he announced the decision to remove Honors from his command.


“His profound lack of good judgment and professionalism while previously serving as executive officer on the Enterprise calls into question his character and completely undermines his credibility to continue to serve effectively in command,” Harvey told reporters.

Pentagon officials admit that overcoming anti-gay attitudes -- or at least punishing them when they surface -- has become more urgent since Congress last month repealed the 17-year-old law that bars homosexuals from serving openly.

Repeal of the law does not take effect until Pentagon officials certify that it will not harm military readiness, a delay meant in part to give the services time to conduct diversity training and take other steps to ease the integration of gays and lesbians.

Pentagon officials say they cannot predict how long it will be before the repeal will take effect, though they say it is one of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ top priorities

But creating a comfortable environment for gays and lesbians throughout the military may take time after years in which anti-homosexual attitudes have been at least tolerated in some units, current and former officials say.

The videos show sailors parading in drag, using gay slurs and simulating masturbation and a rectal exam. In one, two female sailors stand in a shower stall pretending to wash each other.

The videos reflect a “coarse atmosphere” that sometimes exists in the military, said Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council aide under President George W. Bush. These are the “cultural points of friction” that the military will have to contend with as the ban is lifted, he added.

Some officers said that the comments and attitudes in the videos had long been unacceptable, especially among senior officers, and did not accurately reflect attitudes toward homosexuals within the armed services.


“Those kinds of comments were inappropriate even before the law was repealed,” said Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.

Former Navy officer Pete Clarke, who served with Honors, defended him and the videos in an appearance Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show.

Clarke questioned why the Navy decided to take action against Honors now, four years after the videos were produced.

“I don’t think it is fair at all,” Clarke said. “I think the political correctness at the Pentagon needs to be checked on this.”


It’s not uncommon for the Navy to fire commanders, both for personal indiscretions and ship-handling blunders.

Last year, Capt. Holly Graf was relieved of command aboard the guided-missile cruiser Cowpens for “cruelty and maltreatment” toward her crew, according to an inspector general’s report. And the commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer Truxtun, Timothy R. Weber, was relieved for having a romantic relationship with a female officer.

The Navy took action against Honors after public disclosure of the videos over the weekend in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, even though Navy officials told the publication that they had been previously aware of the content of the videos.

Alongside the macho culture of the military, some officers say, there is also an emphasis on discipline and personal discretion, which limits the numbers of incidents in which gays are mocked or subjected to worse treatment.


“The military has a masculine and macho culture,” said Aaron Belkin, director of Palm Center, a UC Santa Barbara think tank on gays and the military. “But the question is not, ‘Does the military have a macho culture?’ It is, ‘Will repeal undermine the military?’ The answer to that is no.”

A Defense Department survey last year of attitudes among service members and their spouses showed that, like American society as a whole, the military has become more accepting of gays and lesbians. More than 70% of those surveyed said they expected little disruption from repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.

But some officers still recall the 1999 killing of Army Pfc. Barry Winchell, a gay infantryman beaten to death in his bunk at Ft. Campbell in Kentucky. Trial testimony showed that Winchell had been harassed by fellow 101st Airborne soldiers over his relationship with a transsexual dancer and former Navy hospital corpsman.

The incident prompted a Pentagon review to investigate the climate of feelings against gays on military bases. A 2000 Department of Defense inspector general’s survey of 72,000 troops found a “disturbing” level of gay harassment. The report found that 85% said they believed anti-gay comments were tolerated at installations or aboard ships.