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Department of Defense acknowledges lesbian-baiting in article

Rebecca Sawyer over at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), which has been leading the fight to repeal DADT, passed along an interesting profile of a woman who had served in the Women’s Army Corps, Kasha Zilka, in recognition of Women’s History Month.

The article, by Elaine Wilson of the American Forces Press Service, chronicles Zilka’s career and the difficulties of service and promotion in the ranks for women in the late 60s. She joined the Army at the age of 17.

“Today, the military is probably one of the best equal opportunity employers in the United States,” said Zilka, who would eventually achieve the rank of sergeant major. “But it hasn’t always been that way.”

…The requirements to join were a bit more challenging for Zilka than for the men in her family. Along with being a high school graduate, women could not be married or pregnant, and mental health and police checks were conducted in every state the applicant had resided in for the past 10 years. Two moving traffic violations disqualified an applicant. Additionally, women had to pass testing with a minimum score 32 points higher than the male minimum.

…The stringent enlistment standards were designed by leadership to ensure the Army “accepted as few risks as possible in mental, physical and moral qualifications,” according to “The Women’s Army Corps, 1945-1978” by Bettie J. Morden.

It’s no surprise to read about the stunning sexism that Zilka encountered, but it was very eye-opening to see that this military publication actually acknowledges the lesbian-baiting that was part of the military culture.

Zilka found positive female role models within her unit and was praised for her work but still found it difficult to be accepted as a “contributing, effective member,” she said. “Women were often labeled as a nymphomaniac, lesbian, husband hunter, or someone’s ugly sister. We were judged by our looks rather than our capabilities.”

Dating was nearly impossible, Zilka said. “If you turned down a man, you would be labeled a lesbian. The problem was being choosy without getting labeled.”

Zilka told of a male brigadier general who wrote a WAC colonel in 1964 to ask for a female officer and NCO who could organize a Women’s Army Corps in the Republic of Vietnam. He spelled out his prerequisites in detail, requesting a WAC officer who was “extremely intelligent, an extrovert and beautiful. The NCO should have the same qualities, plus be able to type.”

Fast forward to today. According to the SLDN, women in the service are disproportionally affected by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — female service members comprise about 15% of the total military force, yet they are 30% of those discharged for being gay.

“Lesbian baiting goes back to the early days of World War II, when women began volunteering for service in what was traditionally a man’s world,” said Brigadier General Evelyn “Pat” Foote, USA (Ret.), an honorary board member of SLDN. “Women have never been deterred, however, from raising their hands, volunteering and putting their lives on the line. In Iraq today, women represent approximately 15% of the forces reporting for duty and have made sacrifices equal to men. They should be valued for their service and in no way held back because of gender or sexual orientation. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ doesn’t pass the common sense rule and continues to deprive our nation of talented Americans who have important contributions to make.”

…An October 2004 study by the Urban Institute indicates lesbians comprise 5% of all female service members and that nearly 10% of all coupled lesbians between the ages of 63 and 67 served during the Korean War. In the ten years from 1990 to 2000, service rates among coupled lesbians aged 18-27 were more than three times higher than rates among other women. Lesbians also tend to serve longer than other women, the report said, noting that nearly 82 percent of coupled lesbians report serving more than two years, compared with 74 percent of other women.

You can read more at SLDN’s blog, The Front Lines.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding