On Wed., Jan. 12, the Yale College Council sent an email to students, saying that, in light of the results of a survey conducted this fall, “YCC fully endorses the effort to bring the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program back to campus and will continue to advocate for students with an interest in military service.” Critical to the YCC’s recommendation was the recent congressional repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibits gay and lesbian Americans from serving openly. “With DADT reversed,” reports the survey, “a clear majority of respondents would support ROTC’s return.”
No DADT, no discrimination, no problems—right? Not so fast, says the Yale LGBTQ Co-op. Two days after the YCC report, in a letter addressed to YCC President Jeff Gordon, SY ’12, members of the Co-op cited Yale’s non-discrimination policy, and asked the YCC to explicitly condemn Department of Defense policies that bar transgender and gender non-conforming individuals from military service. The letter was signed by Co-op Coordinators Mariana Arjona-Soberón, ES ’13 and Ryan Mendías, BC ’13; Political Action Coordinator Ryan Caro, ES ’12; and Board Member Amalia Skilton, CC ’13.
In the past few years, there has been much talk about whether ROTC would return to schools such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Columbia. Though some observers have cried elitism, these institutions have consistently and confidently pointed to DADT as justification for not supporting ROTC programs on their campuses. But the Co-op’s objections may complicate this simple solution to bring ROTC back.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, amid backlash against the Vietnam War, ROTC programs were pushed out of many elite universities, including Yale. As the YCC’s report emphasizes, Yale has never had an “explicit ‘ban’ on the ROTC program. After a series of votes by the faculty and student body in 1969, the Yale Corporation voted to negotiate with the Department of Defense to establish an ‘extensively modified ROTC program without academic credit.’” These negotiations failed, and in 1970 the Army and Navy announced they would be no longer run ROTC programs on the Yale campus. By no longer awarding academic credit for ROTC classes, Yale and other institutions established a de facto ban on ROTC.
ROTC has not had an on-campus program at Yale since 1973. In the time since then, the political debate and controversy surrounding ROTC has shifted away from the Vietnam War and toward the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, implemented in 1993.
All that changed on Sat., Dec. 18, 2010, when the Senate voted to repeal DADT. For years, Yale and other schools have cited the irreconcilability of DADT with their own non-discrimination policies. With that policy no longer in place, many argue that there is no longer any reason to oppose the presence of ROTC, and that it is time for the program to return to the Ivy League.
But the Co-op is not content to let issues of gender identity simply slip under the radar. “While we are thrilled at the prospect of the repeal of DADT,” the board members’ letter to Gordon states, “we believe that the policies of the United States Armed Forces remain incompatible with Yale’s stated policy of non-discrimination with regard to gender identity and expression.”
In 2006, Yale amended its Equal Opportunity Statement to protect gender identity and expression. At the time, President Richard Levin, GRD ’74, stated that the addition to the University’s non-discrimination policy “expressly affirms that discrimination on the basis of these factors is unacceptable at Yale.” However, according to the Co-op’s letter, a joint report from July 2010 by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and the National Center for Transgender Equality concluded that “even after the repeal of DADT, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals would still be excluded from the military.”
Arjona-Soberón points out that it is important to make the distinction that DADT was discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, as opposed to gender identification. The repeal of this policy, while a victory for the LGBTQ community, does nothing for discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people. Skilton adds that this distinction is likely lost on many people, including students here at Yale, among whom she says there seems to be a misunderstanding of what the repeal of DADT means.
In the Trans101 workshop sponsored by the Office of LGBTQ Resources, transgender is defined as “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth” and gender non-conforming as “a term for individuals whose gender expression is different from the societal expectation based on their assigned sex at birth.”
There are two main components to the policy that exclude transgender and gender non-conforming individuals from the military, both detailed in the Co-op’s letter. First, “as part of its medical examinations, the Armed Forces rejects candidates who have had gender-affirming surgery (also known as sex reassignment surgery);” second, “the military strictly regulates uniform and grooming standards by gender. Even if a servicemember is following the medical advice of a doctor before undergoing further transition care, ‘cross-dressing’ or perceived ‘cross-dressing’ can still be grounds for discipline, discharge, or criminal prosecution.”
On Mon., Jan. 17, Mendías and Arjona-Soberón attended a YCC meeting to discuss their concerns regarding the return of ROTC to the Yale campus. According to Arjona-Soberón, the meeting turned out to be not so much a “conversation” between the Co-op and the YCC as a “presentation,” discussing the material covered in the letter in slightly more detail.
Skilton said, “The Co-op doesn’t not believe that the repeal of DADT is sufficient for ROTC to comply with Yale’s non-discrimination policies.” However, according to its leaders, the Co-op also recognizes that despite objections to the military’s transgender and gender non-confirming policies, ROTC’s return to campus is beyond the control of the YCC, and even of the school’s administration because of a federal law passed in 1996 that prohibits government funding of colleges and universities that outright prohibit ROTC and military recruiting on their campuses. (Yale, like most schools, still receives federal funding because the ban on ROTC is de facto and not official.) The law, known as the Solomon Amendment, has been highly controversial; in September 2005, 44 Yale Law School professors signed and filed a Supreme Court brief arguing that the amendment “threatens academic freedom and seeks to prevent law professors from disassociating themselves from the military’s campaign of open discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals.”
Recognizing this limitation, the Co-op wants the YCC and the Yale administration to make a strong, visible statement making it clear that despite the repeal of DADT, the United States military still has discriminatory policies in place that are in “striking contrast” to Yale’s own non-discrimination policies if ROTC returns. As of the evening of Jan. 17, the four members of the Co-op who signed the letter to the YCC said there was no reason not to be optimistic that both the YCC and the administration would both sympathize and comply with their request. Two days later, Gordon wrote in an email, “YCC has already taken action to make sure that the Yale College Dean’s Office is aware of the Co-op’s objections.”
Since the ’70s, many have claimed that Yale and other Ivy League schools’ opposition to ROTC has stemmed from elitism and not, despite their objections, from a principled stand against DADT and the university’s anti-discrimination policies.
Gordon disagrees that elitism is at work here at Yale: “I haven’t seen any evidence of elitism in the current discussion of ROTC. I wouldn’t call opposition to DADT anti-military, but rather pro-military in challenging the military to reach the standards it is capable of.”
Still, critics have argued that the Ivies, even if they were trying to take a stand for justice by shunning ROTC, were doing so in an ineffective way. In October 2008, the Yale Daily News ran a piece in which a Yale student and ROTC cadet training at the University of Connecticut said that the University’s approach to DADT and ROTC was “not dealing with the problem at all as opposed to trying to change it.”
A 2008 Washington Post editorial, “ROTC and the Ivies,” reflected the views of still others opposed to the de facto ban. “The restoration of ROTC at the Ivies might help reconnect two important American subcultures—elite academia and the military officer corps—that have grown apart.”
In a December 2010, article in the Boston Globe, Paul E. Mawn, a Harvard graduate and retired Navy captain who is chairman of Harvard Advocates for ROTC, echoed this tension. “There is an attitude among some senior people in the Pentagon that elite Ivy League universities threw us out when we were at war, so why should we bother with them now,” he wrote. “It’s a lot cheaper to train an officer in Podunk, OK, than spending 50,000 dollars sending someone to Harvard or Yale.”
Last spring, Rob Michel, TC ’14, chose between Yale, West Point, and the Naval Academy. He “fell in love with Yale,” and simply couldn’t pass up the academic opportunities presented by the school. He decided he could still get the military service he wanted—but after Yale and not through ROTC. However, when Michel read a YDN article announcing that the YCC was going to survey the student body to determine the level of interest in ROTC, he decided to write an opinion piece, advocating for the survey and the program.
In his editorial on Tues., Oct. 26, 2010, Michel sought to remind Yale students of their debt to the Americans, including Yale graduates and students, willing to fight for American values. “It is time for us to once again fulfill the core principles that are so clearly delineated in one of our University’s mottos,” Michel wrote, “For God, for Country, and for Yale.”
Yale’s history is deeply connected with the military, and Michel is certainly not the only one who feels that a return to these traditional roots would be fitting. In recent decades, however, there has been a tension between those who think the Ivy League has become disconnected from the military for the wrong reasons, and those who think precisely the opposite—that the Ivy League has distanced itself from the military in an attempt to stand up for certain values, whether they be the anti-war efforts of the ’60s or the fight for gay rights and against DADT.
If Yale and other Ivies breathed a sigh of relief when DADT was repealed, thinking these tensions could finally be resolved and that they no longer had to make a choice between providing students with the chance to serve their country and answering to accusations of elitism, and defending the rights of both their students and all citizens—they would do well to read the Co-op’s letter to the YCC and realize they’re not quite off the hook.