Last semester, students tabled on College Walk, encouraging their peers to lobby for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT). On Dec. 22, when President Obama signed the repeal into law, these students got their wish. In so-called ‘liberal’ circles, this measure was touted as a victory for equality, one that would benefit people of color in particular. For instance, a piece by Jamilah King, published in the online magazine Color Lines, titled “Black Women Win in Repeal of DADT,” cited a report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that found that DADT had disproportionately affected black women. According to this report, black women were discharged under the policy “at three times the rate that they serve in the military.”
In selling the repeal as a victory for black lesbians, King overlooked the nature of what these soldiers would actually be engaged in. The American Army is first and foremost an aggressive imperial force. It is true that, in theory, it is necessary that a nation has a defense force and that this force be comprised of any willing individual fit to serve. But we do not live in a vacuum populated with such theories. The reality is that the American military is not merely a “defense force” whose sole purpose is to shield the domestic realm from incursion. Its battles beyond the home front are not the valiant liberating ventures that colonial fairy tales are made of.
Its better-publicized imperial projects set aside, the American Army has been directly involved in over 50 interventions in Latin America since the Spanish-American War. Currently stationed in over 130 countries, the American military is actively engaged both in its latest acquisitions, Iraq and Afghanistan, and in an old (though scarcely acknowledged) favorite, the Philippines. By its own estimates (which are presumably conservative), it has directly killed 98,170 to 107,152 Iraqi civilians since 2003. Forget closets—throughout its imperial domain, the American army puts queers of color in coffins.
To extol the repeal on any terms is necessarily to disregard or otherwise dehumanize victims of these imperial ventures. If any of us smiled to ourselves when we caught wind of the repeal, it is only because we forgot that, when all is said and done, guns for equal opportunity hire are still hit men. It is only because King forgot that these guns for hire would have real victims that she could present the repeal as a “win” for people of color. This “forgetting,” in turn, was allowed for by two phenomena that her blog is designed to highlight and combat: first, by the ethnocentrism that prompted her to look to the suffering of black American lesbians rather than to that of their Iraqi counterparts and second, by the pervasive racism that devalues Arab lives in the public sphere to the extent that they can be disregarded with such ease.
Because DADT hurt the military, it was a blessing for subjects of the American empire. Most obviously, the repeal has the potential to facilitate American imperialism because it is apt to increase military retention rates, given that those who “tell” will no longer be discharged. If the next 16 years will resemble the past 16, the army just gained over 13,000 troops into 2026 (the number of troops discharged due to DADT since 1994).
There is also reason to suspect that the repeal will aid the military in addressing its dwindling enrollment rates. The repeal stands to further recruitment in portraying the military as an inclusive, non-discriminatory body. The effects of this “good PR” on recruitment initiatives can already be seen on college campuses that had previously banned ROTC because of DADT. As a result of the DADT repeal, Yale and Harvard are reinstating ROTC and, as students are likely aware, similar moves are being made at Columbia pending community consensus.
The fact that repealing DADT has long been a priority for the American gay movement reflects the movement’s leadership. Overwhelmingly white and male, those dominating this cause are far more caught up in their marriage status than in the fact that up to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT (though they comprise only 5 to 7 percent of the overall youth population).
Moving forward, then, Columbia students ought to take two lessons from this experience. The first is that the poor direction of the mainstream American queer movement need not be reflected on our campus. For instance, alleviating homelessness is a cause worth fighting for—allowing for greater participation in imperial wars is not. The second is that we ought to spend less time celebrating the repeal and more time combating the repeal’s fallout. Now is the time for our community to consider how shallow our rejection of ROTC was. As anti-racist youth, we ought to focus, not on fighting inequality within the military, but on fighting a military whose very purpose it is to perpetuate inequality the world over.
Yasmeen Ar-Rayani is a Columbia College junior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. Color in Colonial College runs alternate Mondays.