In the United States, you’ve got folks like Joseph Rocha, forced out of the Navy after endless harassment and torture from fellow sailors. Then there’s Victor Fehrenbach, kicked out of the Air Force under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell because he had the audacity to defend himself against rape charges. Both terrible situations. Now meet Private Bethany Smith, a lesbian soldier who fled to Canada and is seeking refugee asylum, because of the harassment and death threats she received in the Army. And she’s using Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as her defense. Incredible.
Smith, also known as Skyler James, had been stationed Fort Campbell, Ky., where she was treated as “less than human” by comrades, she says, after they saw her holding hands with another woman at a local mall. Then, the torment came:
One soldier who worked with her on the base’s fleet of vehicles would pick her up, shake her and throw her to the ground on a daily basis, she told CBC News.
“There were sergeants standing around laughing with him,” she added.
She also received anonymous hate mail at her door every night, she said, including one letter that warned: “We will suffocate you in your sleep.”
Smith later learned that a gay soldier had been beaten to death in his bed with a baseball bat at the Fort Campbell base in 1999.
So Smith (now 21) came out, and requested a discharge from her sergeant — normally standard procedure, given the stories like Dan Choi’s. Except Smith (age 19 at the time) wasn’t granted one; her lawyer says the military violated its own policies because of the need to keep troop levels high. Due to deploy for Afghanistan to work as a mechanic (her sergeant said they’d take care of the paperwork when they got back), Smith went AWOL, driving to the Canadian border and, with the help of The War Resister Support Campaign, resettled in Ottawa.
After being previously rejected for an asylum claim, Smith yesterday went in front of the Federal Court in Ottawa to persuade them to grant a judicial review. She remains positive about the outcome; while other American soldiers have been denied refugee status, those claims hinged upon opposition to the war, not sexuality.
But Canada’s own counsel is fighting to boot her:
Federal lawyer Brian Harvey urged the court to reject Smith’s claim, saying that it is not the job of the Canadian courts to interfere with American military justice and its treatment of deserters.
“There’s no evidence that she faces tougher sentencing treatment because of her sexual orientation,” said Harvey, who added Smith joined the army voluntarily.
Refugee status, Harvey said, should not be granted lightly, simply because Smith faces prosecution in her home country. Furthermore, Harvey questioned why Smith, in seeking a discharge, never told her supervisor about the badgering and the threats she says she endured.
If Smith returns to the U.S., she’s likely got a court martial and prison sentence, for deserting, ahead of her.
A terrible possibility, but one that remains while Barack Obama sits on his ass and refuses to halt Don’t Ask Don’t Tell investigations. And what about Defense Sec. Robert Gates wanting to implement the policy in a more “humane” way?
We can’t imagine any more human a way than apologize to Smith for letting such soldier-on-solider horror pervade our ranks. And then let her leave service, punishment-free. We know: We’re optimists.
But the elimination of DADT doesn’t mean anti-gay harassment will end in the military. That type of discrimination will continue, though a demand from the White House that servicemen and women treat LGBT Americans with respect would go a long way.
Interestingly, without DADT on the books, Smith would have a much less significant refugee claim. If DADT weren’t law, then sure, Smith would’ve endured torment (which we’re pretty sure violates military code), but not any the U.S. government actually sanctions with law.