Equal Opportunity – The Bench: You’re the Judge

Gays, EO, and the Protected Class Status: It’s not about the Unit-Level

In the midst of the DADT repeal implementation training, I am certain that many of you have noticed that gays and lesbians will not be receiving “protected class” status and therefore will not fall under the responsibility of the Equal Opportunity Department. Instead, cases of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation will be handled at the unit commander’s discretion, with oversight from the IG. While many servicemembers, gay and straight alike, praise this decision not to designate homosexuals as worthy of “special treatment,” this sentiment is spawned from a misunderstanding of the purpose of Military EO, not from rationale concerns about our gay and lesbian servicemembers.

It is no secret; the EO system carries a terrible reputation. Many white, Christian, men probably groan at the term because, to them, it’s a euphemism for “reverse discrimination.” On the flip-side, many women and racial minorities have a similar reaction because they desperately attempt to avoid “special treatment.” As a woman and former West Point cadet, I also resented every EO briefing because all I wanted was to blend in with the guys and I thought EO was counterproductive to my efforts. That is, until I interned with the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) at Patrick AFB, FL, and attended a Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC) hearing last June, and I actually learned the true purpose of EO.

Most servicemembers know EO as a tool that commanders use to address issues of disrespect and discrimination at a unit level. Although that is one function, most people do not realize the main purpose of Military Equal Opportunity is to evaluate discrimination at an institutional level, not at a unit-level. MEO tracks recruitment, retention, and promotion rates of protected classes across all the Armed Forces to make sure they match that of the average servicemember. Because of the statistics tracked by EO, service chiefs now recognize that women are not being promoted to the general officer and flag officer ranks at an acceptable rate. This fact forms the basis of the argument to repealing the female combat exclusion policy, since a disproportionate amount of general and flag officers hail from the combat arms and women are prohibited from entering these branches. Essentially, EO’s promotion statistics are helping women blend in as “one of the guys” by giving them an equal opportunity to progress through the ranks, not targeting them for special treatment as some would argue.

Another argument against gays and lesbians receiving protected class status is that many do not wish to identify as homosexual on their records. It would be naïve to think that the lack of nondiscrimination language in the repeal bill was actually in the interest of our LGBT servicemembers. It was merely a political bargaining tool. Just as the unnecessary 60-day certification was used to appease service chiefs worried about “being engaged in two theaters of war,” the removal of nondiscrimination protections was a provision to appease politicians who otherwise would not support pro-gay legislation. Again, not receiving protected class status was not a decision made in the best interest of LGBT servicemembers necessarily, but rather just the least controversial way of passing a bill before the lame duck session of Congress ended.

And for those then who continue to dissent because of personal unwillingness to identify themselves on paper, I have four words for you: You don’t have to. Just like religious minorities, it is purely an individual’s choice of whether or not to identify as part of that demographic. Atheists are promoted at a much lower rate than Christian-identifying soldiers, but nobody would ever know that for certain unless atheists voluntarily disclosed that information. Religious discrimination can be covered up easily at the unit level (i.e. “I just don’t think Joe has the right values for promotion), but you cannot hide the trends when evaluated at a macro-level. The same would be true of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; nobody will know it is happening unless there is someone checking.

Although the unit level EO program is arguably dysfunctional, I cannot reiterate enough that the main purpose of EO is not to give special treatment to minorities. Rather, the “big picture” purpose of EO is to statistically track institution-wide discrimination, which allows the individual services to tweak personnel policies when unfavorable trends arise.  Additionally, the inclusion of gays and lesbians into a protected class would not require that they identify themselves or that they utilize unit level EO services. However, all gays and lesbians would benefit from knowing whether or not they were being discriminated against in the ranks, which cannot even begin to be tracked unless gays and lesbians receive protected class status.


Don’t Panic!  We Can Get By Without EO

Equal Opportunity (EO) is a touchy subject with many members of the military. Everyone can agree that every person should be treated equally; it is the logistical question of how to make all treatment equal where the disagreements begin to arise. Right now, it looks like LGBT troops may not receive equal protection under EO. While it sounds scary at first, is this necessarily a bad thing?  I say we can get along just fine without it.I don’t know about you, but what I want out of the repeal of DADT is business-as-usual. The primary difference I care to see in my daily life is to no longer live in fear of losing my job for being the man God made me to be. With or without “protected class” status, I will be able to do so. Unfortunately, in an environment where homophobia runs rampant, my biggest concern is people may end up avoiding me out of the fear they may accidentally offend me and that I would report them.

A military mindset with a focus at the institutional level would say there is a simple solution to this problem: training. One of the primary functions of EO is exactly this – though in my personal opinion, unit-level training is EO’s greatest weakness. Typically, troops are trained by EO either through computer-based courses or “canned” PowerPoint briefings delivered to the masses. Both mediums are largely impersonal and personal flare is exactly what troops need in order to be adequately trained in matters of diversity. The best training our military can give, on the ground-level, is the training they will receive via day-to-day interactions with LGBT troops (an experience EO cannot provide).

The other primary function EO offers on the unit-level is to serve as an advocate to those who are discriminated against on-the-job. While this function is important, there are plenty of other agencies which can offer the same protection (i.e. the IG, First Sergeant, Chain-of-Command, Chaplain, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, to name a few). In this respect, EO is merely an added redundancy within the process. However, there is one area where the agency does excel in offering protection to minorities.

EO is great at gathering data to support diversity. Since the US military is a reflection of American society, EO takes a snapshot of the military’s demographics, and makes sure minorities are sufficiently represented throughout the ranks. Right now, LGBT servicemembers are worried they will be left out of this calculation if they are not recognized under EO. Even though DADT repeal has yet to be implemented, the DoD is already gathering statistics on its LGBT troops. It’s public knowledge that the military is working with OutServe and other agencies to gather exactly this sort of data (anonymously of course) to better prepare itself for a post-repeal military.

There is one area, however, where EO can do nothing to support us. As the policy currently stands, the biggest thing that will separate homosexuals and heterosexuals in the military is the right to marriage. This right has nothing to do with EO’s building of demographic profiles, their training programs, or advocacy for minorities. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is a federal law which would negatively affect gays and lesbians even as a protected class. Since EO falls under the military, an institution bound by federal law, it is required by law to uphold this policy for as long as the law is in effect. Some benefits that would be denied to military same-sex couples under DOMA are housing, medical coverage, and joint assignment consideration.

I don’t mean to say that LGBT servicemembers, the military, or our government will be better off without protected class status for LGBT troops; however, one thing I’ve learned in my years of service under the repression of DADT is that gays in the military are resilient people. I am convinced there isn’t a thing EO can offer us that we can’t do without. In the grand scheme of things, we will be just fine with or without their help.

  1. Another Active Duty EO Counselor
    September 22, 2011 at 10:36 PM

    Ditto to the other EO Counselor. The author of this article is so misguided and I absolutely cannot believe he/she ever spent any time at DEOMI. I cannot believe this person would basically say that people in an EO Office (USAF) are number crunchers and occasionally an advocate. Collecting “data” is such a small part of our jobs!!! We are people available to help military members and civilian DOD employees through a confusing and sometimes frustrating process. More importantly, we are people that are non-judgemental and will listen to your concerns. If you come to us with something outside our purview, we are not going to simply dismiss you but we will refer you to a more appropriate channel.

    However, I fully admit we are NOT advocates and we are NOT investigators! We are a non-judgemental, third party, neutral party that ONLY wants to help solve a problem. We are trained to mediate and/or facilitate resolutions to a problem. I personally have entered a room with two people that absolutely hated each other. I thought it was impossible to get these two people on the same page. However, after four hours, we left that room with two people that understood each other and still today work effectively together.

    I could go on and on with what is wrong in this article but I have one basic point. Don’t discourage people to use a very effective resource that is readily available! Especially, when you have no idea what you are talking about.

  2. EO Counselor
    September 21, 2011 at 9:56 PM

    I invite the author of this article to intern with my EO office. I have been in the EO careerfield for 10 years. I have prided myself on distancing my approach to the job from the old social actions stereotype. I would argue that quite the opposite is true, I spend very little time gathering stats and in fact spend more time conducting briefings. I add quite a bit of flair to grab and maintain my students attention. As the author you are most certainly entitled to write an article as you see fit, but interning at DEOMI is nothing compared to being in the trenches with an EO office. You have made several good points. You, the author, have also made references to the EO program I find offensive. I don’t have the time to address each reference I dislike. Bottom line, I am the neutral entity entrusted to help individuals seek resolution to what they feel maybe unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment. I do this for those who feel they can not approach the chain of command, or have done so and have had no change in circumstance. The EO office does not work for minorities, women, men, enlisted, officers, gay or straight. I work for a Wing Commander to sort through allegations brought to our attention. I do not work at an institutional level, I work at all levels on an installation where concerns are made known. The undertones of this article do not paint EO in a favorable tone – to me, speaking for self. I don’t appreciate it. I encourage anyone reading this article to engage your local EO office (USAF) to get the real “low down” on what we do for a living. I also ask readers to engage EO professionals as we conduct “out and about” visits in your squadrons. Its a great time to ask questions about what we can and can not do for you. I have said enough for now… Thanks for reading.

    Concerned EO Professional

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