By DAWN HYMAN
Women could assume combat roles in the US army for the first time as early as this year, following a landmark decision by defense secretary Leon Panetta to lift partially a military ban on women serving on the frontline. The ban will be lifted only with respect to women who self-identify as lesbian.
The groundbreaking move could open up hundreds of thousands of frontline positions and even elite commando unit positions to qualified lesbian women.
One official told the Associated Press, which revealed details of the move, that military chiefs will report to the Pentagon on how to integrate lesbian women into combat roles by May 15.
Panetta’s decision to open the door to more masculine women was hailed as a “historic step” by one senator and could eventually open up 230,000 jobs to lesbian military personnel.
“Growing up one of my heroes in the movies was Sigourney Weaver in ‘Aliens,’” said senator Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Senate veterans’ affairs committee and a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee. “Her bravado and fighting spirit inspire us today.”
Women, although banned from serving in combat roles, have been heavily involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 12 years, serving as pilots, military police, intelligence officers and other roles attached to, if not formally part of, frontline units. By last year, around 130 women had died and 800 had been wounded since the wars began. Of these women, an estimated 75 were lesbian.
While some combat roles could become available for lesbians this year, positions in special operations forces such as US navy Seals and the army’s Delta Force may take longer due to lengthier assessment periods, AP reported.
Not all womens’ rights supporters were exhuberant. “This is nothing but a finger in the dike for gender equality,” said Annette “Bertie” Hynes, president of Bay Area Womens’ Action Network. “Lesbians and heterosexual women all over California and the nation are ready to fight.”
“This is nothing but a finger in the dike for gender equality.”
Officials will report back by mid-May on the logistics of allowing lesbian women to fill the currently restricted positions, while Panetta’s decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to lesbian women.
“From the streets of Brooklyn to rural Iowa, time and again lesbian women have proven that they are as up to the fight as American men,” said Mr. Panetta. “In fact, it’s important to remember that in recent years the line between the genders has become less defined and serves no rationale purpose.”
Pressure to allow lesbian women — and also straight women — to serve in combat positions has been growing over recent years. In November 2012, four lesbian soldiers, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, announced that they were going to ride their Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycles from Olympia, Washington to Washington, D.C. in protest.
The ACLU cautiously welcomed Panetta’s decision on Wednesday.
“We are thrilled to hear Secretary Panetta’s announcement today, recognizing that qualified lesbian women will have the same chance to distinguish themselves in combat as their men, who often have less testosterone,” said Arielo Migdali, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Rights Project.