Sailor’s gay kiss is a milepost on a long road of change
When the USS Oak Hill pulled into its Virginia port this week after a three-month deployment, the sailor who stepped off and bestowed the customary first homecoming kiss on a waiting loved one made history. Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta greeted her girlfriend, Citlalic Snell, on the pier with a kiss and embrace, making them the first same-sex couple to be chosen by the Navy for this very public moment. The crowd cheered. It was a small but significant sign of progress in the U.S. military.
Yet, on the same day, military officials announced that the Army had charged eight soldiers in connection with the death of a young Chinese-American private who was allegedly taunted with ethnic slurs and so brutally hazed by men in his unit in Afghanistan that he shot himself in October. According to his family, Danny Chen, who was 19, wrote in letters that he was teased for being Asian and subjected to frequent jokes about Chinese people. Asian-American advocacy groups have demanded that the military work to improve the treatment of Asians in the armed forces.
In some ways, the military has made exemplary progress in modernizing its culture. Long desegregated along racial, ethnic and gender lines, the armed forces now allow gay soldiers to serve openly as well. And on Thursday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations commended the Department of Defense for announcing that Muslim and Sikh students in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs could request to wear religious head dress such as turbans and hijabs when they are in uniform. But the military, like other institutions, has continued to struggle along the way with racism, sexism, sexual assaults and homophobia. The repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is less than a year old; Gaeta and her girlfriend — who is also a sailor — could not have kissed so publicly at a homecoming a year ago. (Gaeta won the “first kiss” spot in a raffle among the crew.)
Racism within the ranks is still an issue. The military’s zero tolerance policy is a start, but it takes strong leadership to educate and sensitize young and often unworldly soldiers about the level of respect that all their fellow soldiers are due. (Of the eight soldiers charged in Chen’s death, one of them is an officer. He is charged with dereliction of duty.)
The Army was right to move quickly in investigating and bringing charges in the Chen case; with hard work and leadership, we hope diversity in the military can become a non-issue in the years ahead. After the two women kissed on the Virginia pier, the rest of the crew filed off the ship and immediately turned to the bigger issue at hand — reuniting with their family and friends.
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