Gender studies roundtable explores sexuality in military

Sam Chapman

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Credit: Marie von Hafften

 

On Tuesday, Nov. 1, students gathered in Olin to participate in a conversation with three experts about masculinity in the military, the subject of this year’s gender studies round-table discussion.

These experts were Zoë Wool, an Institute for Health doctoral fellow studying injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; Brian Selmeski, a consultant with the U.S. Air Force who has studied military conscription of males in Ecuador; and Aaron Belkin, professor of sociology at San Francisco State University and director of the Palm Center, a think tank instrumental in repealing the army’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

Suzanne Morrissey, assistant professor of anthropology and member of the gender studies steering committee, discussed the similarities in the research of the three guest speakers.

“Their research is going to overlap in the areas of intimate relationships: not only intimate in explicit sexual terms, but in terms of how people who are injured and in need of support form new relationships with family and partners during day-to-day care,” Morrissey said.

The three academics started out the evening by describing their current research projects. Wool related how, while conversing with patients at Walter Reed, she discovered that many male soldiers view an injury to the genitals as a fate worse than death.

“It’s easy to talk about injured manhood in terms of genitals, but I’m shifting the focus away from the genitals and asking why it makes sense for us to think that way,” Wool said. “I’m thinking about personhood, how people become constituted as certain kinds of people and what the political and moral implications of that are.”

Credit: Marie von Hafften

Selmeski began working with the Ecuadoran army 12 years ago.

“A decade ago, I was interested in how you could take a society cross-cut by profound ethnic, racial, class and geographic distinctions and make a cohesive military organization,” Selmeski said. “The answer is with a common, imposed sense of what it means to be a man. As you try to make an inclusive military, who or what is excluded? Why, how and to what broader effect?”

One of the duties of Belkin’s think tank was to generate news relating to a troublesome aspect of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. As part of his introduction, he told a story about the Pentagon’s “moral waivers” program, which let convicted terrorists serve in the U.S. military while qualified homosexual soldiers were sent home.

After discussing their works, the participants fielded questions from the audience. Students questioned Selmeski on the origins of a test in which Ecuadoran military recruits are forced to strip naked in public, and all three responded to an audience member who wondered if the anti-war and pro-gay-rights movements were incompatible.

“The main idea holding the policy in place for 17 years was that allowing people to be openly gay would undermine the military,” Belkin said. “[Policy supporters] claimed that anyone wanting to repeal it was an antimilitarist.”

Students who attended the discussion were presented with several different viewpoints, and came away with a new synthesis of ideas.

“I took away that masculinity in the military is a structure that is not entirely real,” said first-year Brandon Hunzicker. “It’s used to enforce things that the military does and to protect it from criticism.”

Associate Professor of Religion Melissa Wilcox hopes that students benefited from the lecture.

“Part of our goal is to model academic debate, because not all of our authors agree,” Wilcox said. “The kind of conversation that they’ll have between themselves is the kind of conversation we hope students will learn to have.”

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