The ques­tion of whether gays and les­bians should be allowed to serve in the US armed forces has been bandied about for years. You can always gauge how close we are to an elec­tion cycle by how often this topic sur­faces; it’s one of those things — as with flag burn­ing or post­ing the Decalogue in pub­lic places — that’s sure to get peo­ple riled. When peo­ple get riled, they tend to vote.

The cur­rent pol­icy, charm­ingly called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, came into being dur­ing the Clinton years. It was seen as a sort of com­pro­mise at the time, but for those who wanted the ban lifted entirely on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, it was dif­fi­cult to see exactly where the com­pro­mise was. Succinctly, dur­ing enlist­ment, you used to be asked, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a prac­tic­ing homo­sex­ual?“1 Now, they don’t ask. You don’t have to tell. That was the compromise.

The other side of the pol­icy is that if a sol­dier later reveals a non­hetero­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, he or she can be tried under court mar­tial and issued a dis­charge, because homo­sex­ual behav­ior is against the mil­i­tary code of con­duct. However, even reveal­ing the pres­ence of a lover, while remain­ing celi­bate when away from that per­son, is also grounds for dis­charge. The sub­tle mes­sage is that merely think­ing about engag­ing in homo­sex­ual con­duct is against the rules. Freedom of thought is thus quashed. This seems unrea­son­able in almost any light, and arguably goes against the spirit of our national founders’ intent.

Leaving aside for a moment the ques­tion about sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, this places gays and les­bians in a tough spot. There are very good rea­sons to want to enlist; for instance, the mil­i­tary can offer a leg up and a good start in life. It can be a ques­tion of patri­o­tism. Or it might run in the fam­ily. All of these rea­sons are suit­able for enlist­ment, and they’re all laud­able. However, a non­hetero­sex­ual enlis­tee starts her or his career at an instant dis­ad­van­tage. When the oth­ers are able to talk about the lovers or spouses they’re miss­ing, a gay or les­bian sol­dier can­not join in the con­ver­sa­tion. I can’t imag­ine this enhances a sense of cama­raderie in the ranks.

Contrarily, there surely are some sol­diers who would feel uncom­fort­able to know they were serv­ing, liv­ing closely, and even show­er­ing with a non­hetero­sex­ual per­son. I’d imag­ine it could be pretty awk­ward to have to drop your clothes in a sit­u­a­tion where you felt you might be get­ting ogled. Something like that prob­a­bly wouldn’t lend itself to cama­raderie either.

What seems to be the case among most active-​​duty per­son­nel, though, is that the only real con­cern they have about their fel­low sol­diers is how well they can han­dle a fight. Do they keep it together when bul­lets are fly­ing and explo­sions are thun­der­ing? Can they hit what they’re aim­ing at? How far can they chuck a grenade? Do they have your back? Most sol­diers seem to be of the mind­set that, once you’re actu­ally in com­bat, your sex­ual behav­iors are irrelevant.

Recently, a lengthy study was pub­lished wherein sur­vey results showed that the over­whelm­ing major­ity of active-​​duty sol­diers are com­fort­able with the idea of serv­ing with gay or les­bian com­rades. This is not uni­ver­sally so, of course, but with the Marines hold­ing out at a max­i­mum of 30% oppo­si­tion, the voices of dis­sent aren’t any­where near as loud as we might think.

Usually in our soci­ety, major­ity car­ries. This doesn’t mean we should dis­re­gard the sen­si­bil­i­ties of our ser­vice­men and –women, though, when they raise objec­tions. On the other hand, we shouldn’t dis­re­gard the rights of gays and les­bians to serve, if they feel moti­vated to do so.

I sup­pose we could start by ask­ing why the objec­tions to homo­sex­u­al­ity exist. I’m not sure myself. I sup­pose some of it has to do with social con­di­tion­ing; we’re shown at an early age that non­hetero­sex­ual behav­ior is a sub­ject of mock­ery, deri­sion, and shame; it can lead to phys­i­cal vio­lence and even death; some nations, such as Iran, kill peo­ple for homosexuality.

Some of it may be due to sen­si­ble dis­com­fort. I really would not feel right about strip­ping down in front of some­one whom I believed was aroused by it, if that person’s arousal was unwelcome.

Some of it is surely due to reli­gious upbring­ing. In many forms of Christianity and Islam, homo­sex­u­al­ity is regarded as sin­ful. (I don’t know what the out­look is in Judaism, but it’s prob­a­bly sim­i­lar; I don’t think it’s as much of a prob­lem under Hinduism.)

All of these objec­tions have some form of merit, and they’re all com­pletely legit­i­mate to those who have the objec­tions. Probably the reli­gious one is the most dif­fi­cult to address ratio­nally, but it is worth point­ing out that the US armed forces don’t dis­crim­i­nate based on reli­gion. You can be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, athe­ist, or just about any­thing else, and they’ll hap­pily enlist you. I imag­ine that the dif­fer­ences between a Christian and Muslim het­ero­sex­ual are con­sid­er­ably greater than those between a gay and a straight Christian, yet our mil­i­tary seems to have man­aged to resolve those reli­gious dif­fer­ences. Bullets don’t care whom you wor­ship, and they don’t care whom you make love with.

The dis­com­fort about liv­ing in close quar­ters could be some­what eas­ier to han­dle. There’s a stereo­type — par­tic­u­larly of gay men — that non­hetero­sex­ual peo­ple are hedo­nists who will seek out sex as often as pos­si­ble, make unwel­come and repeated advances, and gen­er­ally behave in a way unbe­fit­ting to wear­ing the uniform.

The real­ity is some­what dif­fer­ent. Surely if you go to a gay bar or bath­house, you will see open advances being made, and quite a few other things besides. However, this behav­ior isn’t found in places such as the office, in super­mar­kets, or at restau­rants. What this sug­gests to me is that gays and les­bians know where their advances may be wel­come, and where they’re out of place. That’s why you see those behav­iors in gay bars and bath­houses, not at the office, in super­mar­kets, or at restaurants.

I think it would be fair to pre­sume that, just as they’re cir­cum­spect with their behav­iors at work, gays and les­bians are not likely to be com­ing on to other sol­diers in the shower. They know the rules, and they know who the straight peo­ple are.

Finally, we have social con­di­tion­ing. I think quite a lot of that can be defused by sim­ple expo­sure. If a man is uncom­fort­able about the idea of gay peo­ple, his views are likely to change once he’s had a chance to actu­ally talk with and get to know a few. He might not feel com­pletely at ease with the idea, but at least he’ll have a chance to dis­cover that gay and straight men really aren’t all that dif­fer­ent, except in one sig­nif­i­cant behav­ior — which isn’t going to be hap­pen­ing in the bar­racks anyway.

There are plenty of peo­ple out­side the mil­i­tary who object to gays and les­bians serv­ing, but unless they have good, rationally-​​defensible rea­sons for it, and are plan­ning to enlist them­selves, I’m not sure they should have much weight in the dis­cus­sion.2 It really doesn’t affect their lives.

Sexuality and reli­gion have a long, fraught his­tory. I don’t know of any belief sys­tem any­where that doesn’t have some­thing to say, some set of rules or another, on the sub­ject of sex and sex­u­al­ity. What I find inter­est­ing is that the founders of some belief sys­tems never actu­ally brought up the topic. It was their fol­low­ers that started putting down rules.

As an exam­ple, Abraham never men­tioned sex at all, though he appar­ently had quite a lot of it. I don’t recall Mohammed dis­cussing it — at least I don’t see restric­tions men­tioned in the Koran — and it wasn’t a sub­ject Jesus ever spoke of either, beyond for­giv­ing an adul­ter­ess. Siddhartha Gautama made men­tion of it only to the extent of warn­ing monks away from it, but that was within a larger context.

In Buddhism, there is dis­cus­sion of the ten non­vir­tu­ous actions. These are loosely divided into cat­e­gories of action in mind, action in body, and action in speech. Sexual mis­con­duct is one of the three non­vir­tu­ous actions of body (along with killing and steal­ing), and inter­pre­ta­tion of mean­ing is as diverse in Buddhism as it is in any other mature belief sys­tem. That is, some Christian sects reject any kind of sex out­side of mar­riage; some reject sex­ual excess; some reject homo­sex­u­al­ity. Some even for­bid mas­tur­ba­tion. Buddhism has a sim­i­lar diver­sity. Some sects for­bid oral sex; some for­bid any kind of non-​​marital sex; some for­bid non-​​procreative sex.

Loosely, Buddhism’s ground is to avoid incest, rape, sex by dis­hon­esty (“I’ll still respect you in the morn­ing,” etc.), and sex with those still under the pro­tec­tion of their fam­ily.3 By and large, in the more expan­sive sys­tems, that’s it. There’s no men­tion made of homo­sex­u­al­ity, cer­tainly not by Gautama, so it’s held by the more liberal-​​minded prac­ti­tion­ers that same-​​sex inter­course isn’t regarded any dif­fer­ently from any other kind of sex.

However, Buddhism’s rea­son­ing is not the same as what you’ll find in the Abrahamic reli­gions. Under Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the pro­scribed forms of sex are seen as sin­ful, some­thing rejected by their god. It can put your soul in peril. Buddhism has a dif­fer­ent take: your soul won’t be in peril, but your enlight­en­ment will.

On one level, the ten non­vir­tu­ous actions all add to social and indi­vid­ual strife, which is rea­son enough to avoid them; but some of them can end up anchor­ing you in a cycle of stim­u­la­tion. You may get so attached to the thrill of sex, for instance, that it dom­i­nates your mind and inter­feres with keep­ing to the path of nonat­tach­ment, pre­vent­ing you from rec­og­niz­ing the fun­da­men­tal imper­ma­nence and unsat­is­fac­tori­ness of exis­tence. Since it’s vital (in Buddhism) to see imper­ma­nence and unsat­is­fac­tori­ness clearly, any exces­sive behav­ior — includ­ing sex­ual excess — is con­sid­ered unskill­ful. Not pre­cisely wrong, but cer­tainly not ideal.

Where things can get dif­fi­cult is when a prac­ti­tioner feels he needs cer­tainty in the form of rules. Some peo­ple are much more com­fort­able with a clear set of bound­aries, with explicit injunc­tions against doing this, say­ing that, and eat­ing the other thing. Some forms of Buddhism do have these rules, but those forms are a lit­tle hard to find in the west­ern world.4 It’s not that Buddhism is par­tic­u­larly per­mis­sive; it’s just because Buddhism is, at its base, lit­tle more than a philo­soph­i­cal frame­work which can fit well into almost any set­ting. As such, its adapt­abil­ity can make it hard to pin any­thing down with it, par­tic­u­larly in a lib­eral society.

In prac­tice, this means that it’s up to each indi­vid­ual Buddhist to decide for her­self where the bound­aries are, what is unskill­ful, what inter­feres with her path to real­iza­tion, and what qual­i­fies as out­right mis­con­duct. Many Buddhists spend a lot of time think­ing about these things, con­stantly putting their dri­ves and behav­iors under a microscope.

Additionally it can be argued that Buddhism is, by its very nature, plas­tic. This is prob­a­bly a good thing. I can assure you that if the Theravada behav­ioral require­ments for monks were strictly imposed uni­ver­sally, Buddhism wouldn’t have made its way to Tibet, China, Japan, and even­tu­ally the west­ern world. No one would have wanted to get involved.

Gautama was imper­ma­nent. Societies are imper­ma­nent. Social cus­toms and mores are imper­ma­nent. Therefore, elab­o­rate rules based in one soci­ety are not to be attached to another. Really the only def­i­nite aspects of the Dharma — Buddhist beliefs — are the four noble truths and the eight­fold path. Everything else is com­men­tary. Similarly, the most impor­tant prac­tice of Buddhism is med­i­ta­tion, par­tic­u­larly vipas­sana (mind­ful­ness) med­i­ta­tion. Altars, incense, and mantras are unnec­es­sary, and might be hindrances.

So where does this leave us in terms of Buddhism and homo­sex­u­al­ity? My sense of it is, sim­ply, that if you’re not engag­ing in obses­sive behav­ior, and if you’re not explic­itly harm­ing another by your behav­ior, most sex­ual activ­ity is accept­able — just as with other behav­iors, such as what we eat, what we drink, what lan­guages we speak, and so on. Furthermore, I don’t think we can ask a man or woman to serve, fight, and pos­si­bly die for this coun­try while at the same time telling them they are not allowed to love whom they will, and are not allowed to be hon­est about it with their comrades-​​in-​​arms.

I don’t see a solid Buddhist rea­son to for­bid gays and les­bians serv­ing in the mil­i­tary, nor do I see any other defen­si­ble rea­son; and if that is the path they choose, it is my wish for them that they tread it well, with honor, and with dignity.


1. Witty rejoin­ders included, “No, I’m an expert”, and “I prac­tice every chance I get, honey”.

2. This includes retired sol­diers as well as career civil­ians, since the retirees are no longer on active duty and won’t be serv­ing with any­one — gay, straight, or what­ever else.

3. In addi­tion to chil­dren, this means those who may be hand­i­capped or oth­er­wise incapacitated.

4. The Buddhist school that is most famil­iar to the west­ern world, and that has the most rigid set of rules, is prob­a­bly Zen.

As an aside, I apol­o­gize for the long delay before this post. I’ll endeavor to do bet­ter in the future.

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