Naval Enthusiast Loses Out to 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

The law might be called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but Todd Belok got kicked out of the Naval ROTC at George Washington University because somebody told.

Belok is an 18-year-old freshman who has wanted to be in the Navy at least since he took a trip to the USS Intrepid when he was in elementary school. The Navy is in his blood. His grandfather served during World War II. He refers to the military values of honor, courage and commitment so frequently that they could be his address.

“It’s natural to want to give back to your country,” he says. “The Navy is a great opportunity. There’s no experience like it.”

But it’s an experience he won’t have for one reason -- he’s gay.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is blatant bigotry enshrined in law. If someone in uniform demonstrates “a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts,” that person can be bounced back to civilian life.

Simply being gay is not a bar to serving, according to Pentagon guidelines. But you’d better be deep in the closet if you are. “The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct,” say the guidelines, “which is defined as a homosexual act, a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual, or a marriage or an attempted marriage to someone of the same gender.”

Legislation that would overturn the law probably will be reintroduced soon. This time those who want to dump government-backed discrimination have a supporter in the White House.

President Obama agrees with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and other military experts that we need to repeal the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” declares says a statement on whitehouse.gov. “The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve. Discrimination should be prohibited.”

Belok more than meets the key test as defined by Obama. Perhaps repeal, depending on if and when it comes, could help Belok, but for now the political science major is out of uniform.

He’s out because a couple of other NROTC members told on him. They saw him kissing his boyfriend at a frat house party. The “don’t tell” part of the law refers to the gay person. Military culture encourages members to expose colleagues who break the rules.

“If one of our students saw someone lie and they chose not to report it, that’s a problem, a leadership issue,” said Capt. Brian Gawne, the NROTC commander, who would not discuss Belok’s case directly because of privacy concerns. “Do you want an officer out in the fleet who looks the other way?”

Not long after his fellow students exposed him, Belok was summoned to a performance review board that snooped into his sexuality. The board found that “Belok did introduce his male friend as his ‘boyfriend’ and ‘special friend...’” It goes on to say that “Belok did kiss his male friend on the lips during the evening.”

It should be hard to believe that in 2009 this kind of prying flows from the law of the land. It’s so inconsistent with a nation that has made such strong efforts to combat bias.
Everyone, of course, does not share that view. Craig Roberts, a spokesman for the American Legion, said “we think it’s a reasonable policy. We see no reason to change it.”

Because of the law, 12,500 service members have been discharged since 1994, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which works to have it repealed. They include at least 59 Arabic linguists whose skills are badly needed.

Yet, rather than making it easier for the military to meet its recruitment goals, the American Legion believes changing the policy “would discourage more people from joining or staying in the service.” Is that the homophobe contingent?

After hearing from Belok’s colleagues, the board said he bears “the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that retention is warranted.”
Ironically, that same section of the board’s findings make the case for his retention.
It says:

--He is “well supported” by his chain of command “regarding his performance as a member of the unit.”

--Belok is “physically and academically fit for the Naval ROTC program.”

--All members of the board that called for his removal “had a favorable impression” of Belok’s performance.

--He “has not been a disruptive influence in the Unit’s activities.”

--Belok “is not in danger from his fellow Midshipmen.”

As if writing in the Alice in Wonderland style known as literary nonsense, the board acknowledged that it “did not establish unequivocal evidence of homosexuality, which is a personal matter and not incompatible with military service,” but then recommends Belok get the boot because of “overwhelming evidence ... of a propensity toward homosexual acts.”

The Legal Defense Network is sponsoring a lobby day on March 13 to encourage Congress to support repeal of the law. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is among more than 140 members of Congress who back repeal, but he thinks the bill won’t move until Obama makes a decision on how to get U.S. troops out of Iraq.

There’s been “a significant generational change” in favor of ending “Don’t Tell, Don’t Ask,” he said. “I think the country is ready for it.”

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com

By Eric Pianin  |  February 23, 2009; 7:40 PM ET
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