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NEW YORK — Two decades after integration of the military, race riots flared on Navy warships in the Vietnam era. Long after servicewomen were officially placed on an equal footing with men, sexual harassment is still pervasive.
Now the military has a new social challenge: Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the ranks. It is expected that commanders will dutifully implement the policy, and overall it will likely be judged a success, but recent history provides some cautionary lessons.
On one hand, the military has earned a deserved reputation as a meritocracy in which minorities and women can flourish. On the other hand, sexual assault remains a rampant problem, and racism was minimized only after years of friction within the ranks.
Perhaps the impending repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy will unfold more easily, but some female veterans say that will be the case only if commanders are vigilant and aggressive in quashing anti-gay harassment.
"When women come forward to report sexual harassment, that's when a commander's courage is tested," said Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who heads the Service Women's Action Network. "Even though we have fairly decent policies on paper, enforcement of basic harassment policies is very shoddy."
Bhagwati's network is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed Dec. 13 seeking access to Pentagon records on the thousands of sexual assault and harassment cases reported in the past decade. In fiscal year 2009 alone, the Defense Department said there were 3,230 reports of sexual assault involving service members.
As with sexual assault, there will soon be explicit regulations on how commanders should deal with anti-gay harassment, but Bhagwati said some officers may shy away from enforcing them so as not to publicize problems within their units.
Several military-policy scholars suggested that the armed forces had done better in regard to racial equality than it has in curtailing harassment of women.
"With race, the military led the way," said David Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist who has studied military personnel policies. "It was not that way with gender — lots of other workplaces were ahead, and I'm surprised it has taken us this long to get to where we are now."
But Steven Schlossman, a Carnegie Mellon University history professor who has written about the racial integration of the military, said that process was slow-moving and contentious, with the Army taking more than three years after President Harry Truman's 1948 desegregation order to comply.
"There's a tendency to understate the levels of resistance that still existed following Truman's order," Schlossman said.
Indeed, some the worst racial conflicts ever in the U.S. military occurred during the Vietnam War, including a 1972 race riot on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. Even now, with racial violence largely in the past, blacks hold only about 6 percent of senior command positions while comprising about 17 percent of overall active duty forces.
The adjustment to repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" might be quicker and smoother, since the change appears to have broader support within today's military than there was for desegregation 60 years ago. In one 1947 study, four of five enlisted men told the Army they would oppose blacks serving in their units, while a recent Pentagon survey found that two-thirds of the overall force predicted minimal problems if gays were allowed to serve openly.
Marcus S. Cox, a professor who teaches black military history to cadets at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., believes generational factors are at work, "My students say they'd have no problem serving with someone gay as long as they're able to do their jobs," he said. "For young people, raised with MTV and same-sex marriage, it's not as unsettling as for some older people."
Segal said incidents of gay-bashing had occurred on a regular basis under "don't ask, don't tell" and would likely continue, but not increase, after repeal enabled gays and lesbians to be open about their sexual orientation.
He noted that many members of the military already knew they had gays in their units, despite "don't ask, don't tell," and suggested this could make the upcoming transition smoother than the changes involving blacks and women.
"When we put African-Americans in all-white units in 1950 and abolished the Women's Army Corps in the 1970s, we were putting people in units they hadn't been in before — blacks in white units, women in male units," he said.
Sue Fulton, of North Plainfield, N.J., has seen military prejudice from two directions — as a lesbian and as a woman who was in the first coed class at the U.S. Military Academy in 1976.
"At the academy, it was all about leadership," she said. "Many of the problems we had came from instructors and staff who would make derogatory comments about women in front of cadets."
Those staffers were a minority, she said, and most officers were supportive.
Now, with gays soon able to serve openly, Fulton says officers will face similar choices on how to exercise leadership.
"There is a chasm of difference between saying, ‘We got our orders' and saying, ‘This is a good. This will make us stronger, and here's how we'll go about it."
Fulton, 51, served in the Army's Signal Corps, becoming a company commander. She left the service in 1986, wearying of suspicion and threatened investigations related to her sexual orientation, and she has recently served as a spokeswoman for gay and lesbian West Point graduates.
Pat Foote, a retired brigadier general, has been monitoring the role of servicewomen since she joined the Army in 1960.
"It remains a work in progress," she said, contrasting the ascension of women to high command positions with the persisting problem of sexual assault and harassment.
"When we start court-martialing and discharging the people guilty of that, we'll get their attention," she said. "We haven't gotten to that point. The words are out there — ‘zero tolerance.' But then it happens and happens and happens."
She's more optimistic about the prospects for gays. Will their ability to serve openly cause disruption within their units? Her answer: "Hogwash."