DADT and The L Word’s Representation of Queer Military Visibility

As the semester is slowly but surely coming to an end, I’ve been looking over my little list that I had crafted earlier this year with possible topics to cover on this blog. There still remain so many things I would like comment on but realistically I will probably never ever get to it … so this week I figured it might be a good point to present a few very fragmented (emphasis here!) ideas that I have on a possible future project: interrogating the representation of queer military visibility in The L Word.

As an avid fan of the show (I finally finished watching all six seasons this month, and my poor roommate had to endure some of it in the living room ;), it was particularly interesting to follow the development of Tasha Williams, an African American queer service member, who is introduced in Season 4. As I suggest, Tasha represents the shows most provocative take on the Bush Administration’s foreign policy with a (fictional) critique of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” before the policy’s official repeal in September, 2011.

But let me provide some background on all of this:  The L Word ran on Showtime from 2004 through 2009 and presents one of the most successful shows on the network up until today. The L Word revolved around the lives and loves of a close-knit group of (predominantly) lesbians (there are also bisexual and transgender characters) living in Los Angeles, as well as their friends and family members who either support or loath them.

Given the blog post format, I don’t want to waste too much time delving into plot details here, but it is interesting to address The L Word’s “struggle” with, what Kevin Barnhurst (2007) calls the “visibility paradox”: the show became notably “more diverse” in its portrayal of lesbians towards the later seasons as several viewers and fans arguably took issue with its very limited focus on a very affluent, white, and femme type of lesbian during its first two seasons. Similarly, Ciasullo (2001) argues that representations of lesbianism are typically normalized-heterosexualized or “straightened out” – via the femme body; lesbians who are not femme, the butch, are virtually invisible in media representations, and when they do appear, they are often pathologized.

The character of Tasha, especially along with the introduction of woman-to-man transgender figure Max, can be seen as The L Word’s attempt to more explicitly (re)negotiate the “invisibility” and excessive “stigmatization” of certain persons in the LGBTQ community.

But enough on that and to my actual area of interest here: Tasha Williams (played by Rose Rollins), a military Police Officer in the Army National Guard, enters the tight-knit circle of Bette, Tina, Jenny, Shane, Kit and Helena as she becomes Alice’s girlfriend (played by Leisha Hailey). Alice, white, fashion lover, clearly femme and a self-proclaimed bisexual, is a quirky, sometimes hyper-active journalist for LA Magazine who’s mostly known throughout the show as being the creator of the infamous chart, a recompilation of all the lesbian relationships, sexual encounters, and one-night stands  in LA – think six-degrees of separation.

Tasha, on the contrary is portrayed as an African-American Amazon who proudly rides a motorcycle and comes across as a rather tough butch. Her relationship with Alice is not a smooth one from the get go as they frequently bump heads about Tasha’s military service. Alice accuses her of being complicit in a regime that is “killing innocent Iraqis for Bush’s War” and wonders why Tasha let’s herself be treated like a second class citizen by being prohibited from serving openly. The criticism presented in their arguments reveals some stark shots at the Bush Administration, especially if we consider that the season aired in 2006.

Interestingly, we also witness Tasha encountering nightmares and symptoms of PTSD after doing a tour in Iraq. Unfortunately, the show hereby refrains from putting these issues into a larger social discussion. Further, the show also never makes race an issue of any of the struggles or complications the couple is encountering. This complete erasure or neglect of race could certainly be further explored as well.

At the end of Season 4, Tasha gets called in by her superior informing her that someone made a complaint that she was seen engaging in inappropriate conduct. He tells her that he does never want to see or hear again about her “life style.” In Season 5, ironically or not Tasha is spared from another tour in Iraq as she is being investigated for “homosexual conduct in the military” or simply put,  violating DADT.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was originally introduced as a compromise measure in 1993 by President Bill Clinton who campaigned in 1992 on the promise to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation. DADT became the official United States policy on homosexuals serving in the military from December 21, 1993 and prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants, while openly barring gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service. The policy prohibits people who “demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” from serving in the armed forces of the United States, because their presence “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” Any homosexual or bisexual person was prohibited from disclosing his or her sexual orientation. The act specified that service members who disclose that they are homosexual or engage in homosexual conduct should be subject to “administrative separation” (discharge).

As Tasha approaches her supervisor for help, she is simply told that any defense would be nearly impossible and that she should prepare for leaving the service, which puts her into much agony: “I dedicated my whole to life to the service.”

In another argument with Alice it is thereby striking to hear Tasha emphasizing that “she is not fighting to turn over DADT, but fighting to stay in the military” while Alice accuses her of “fighting your whole life to deny who you are.” This statement conveys a dismissal of gay rights on Tasha’s part and fits into a neoliberal and neoconservative frame work, which solely relegates ones sexual and personal “politics” to the private realm, instead of critiquing and fighting unjust structural hierarchies and systems in society at large. Katherine Sender (2006) came to similar conclusions in her analysis of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as the show suggests that the appropriate place to negotiate gender and sexual politics is the commercial realm, leaving its progressive message vulnerable to the vagaries of “audience ratings and marketers’ patronage.” More on that would certainly be worthy to discuss in a full length paper.

Season 5 presents the height of Tasha’s “DADT challenge”: She is ultimately charged with “Chapter 15 discharge for homosexual conduct.” As the investigation becomes more aggressive, Alice encounters an intimidating and humiliating visit by military personnel in her apartment.  She is asked intimate questions, and her LGBTQ materials as well as the infamous chart are scrutinized.

As the trial begins, military prosecutor General Jill Davis is assigned with the case and makes it very clear to Tasha, despite her excellent achievements that if she wanted to stay in the service “You should have thought about that before deciding to become a lesbian.” Ironically, General Davis herself is later unambiguously coded as lesbian as we see her in a telling shower scene.

During the final trial session Alice is called into the stand to testify denying any sexual relationship with Tasha. The following clip from Season 5, Episode 8 “Lay Down the Law” shows you that particular scene. As all seems lost for Tasha, Davis unexpectedly approaches Alice during a break and tells her that Tasha should focus on emphasizing how Sergeant Brown (the original whistleblower) has numerous reasons to act out of envy and jealousy as Tasha chose to promote a female sergeant who was better qualified and more apt.  The case almost seems won until Tasha makes a final statement stating that she has tried to “uphold the military code …until personal freedom [was] denied to me … for the person I love.”  This, of course, leads to her immediate discharge, and General Davis tellingly notes: “Personal freedom is an enviable thing, but personal sacrifice to assure that many more Americans can enjoy their freedom; that is the nobler cause”.

Since DADT was introduced in 1993, the military has discharged over 13,000 troops from the military under DADT, while the numbers of discharges sharply dropped after September 11, 2001.

In his 2008 election campaign, President Barack Obama finally advocated for a full repeal of the law. In October 2009, Obama stated in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign that he would end the ban, but set no date. In his State of the Union Address in 2010, Obama said, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” This was quickly followed up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen voicing their support for a repeal of DADT.

The policy came to an official end on Sept. 20, 2011. The law calling for repeal required that the action be delayed until President Obama certified that the military was “ready for the change,” which he did in July 2011. Pentagon officials said that nearly two million service members had been trained in preparation for gay men and women serving openly in their ranks. The extended preparation period had been sought by military leaders and Pentagon officials, many of whom were initially reluctant to end the policy in the middle of two wars.

Not too surprisingly several candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination called for the restoration of DADT, including Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. Sometimes you may wonder whether we’re still fighting the “culture wars” of the 1990s…

While The L Word’s take on DADT as well as PTSD is clearly limited and severely romanticized to a certain extent, I think it is worthy to acknowledge the shows’ willingness to engage in these discussions in precarious times, particularly during the second term of the Bush administration. Clearly, this is very hypothetically speaking, but it may have been fictional formats such as The L Word that could have contributed to the final and long awaited repeal of DADT in 2011.

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