Mar.10, 2000

Bias at Defense Language Institute alleged

14 cases of anti-gay harassment in past year, report claims

Air Force officers at the Defense Language Institute conducted a "witch hunt" to root out homosexual female student leaders during the past year, according to a report released Thursday by a national watchdog organization.

During the year, 14 DLI students were allegedly harassed by superiors who persisted in asking them if they were gay, according to a report by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Of those cases, 12, involved female Air Force personnel.

The report says the inquiries violated the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the military. The controversial policy allows homosexuals to remain in the military if they do not disclose their sexual orientation and do not engage in homosexual acts.

According to Stacey Sobel, legal director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, DLI had more complaints for its size than any other U.S. military installation in the world. The Monterey school has 3,360 students, 34 percent of them women.

"A lot of anti-gay comments, jokes and derogatory statements were being made in the actual classrooms, but that's not news. We've seen that before at DLI. But the things that are really different this year are the sheer volume of cases, and that almost all of them were from the Air Force," Sobel said.

"I believe the organization is lobbying for specific interests they have," said Army Col. Daniel Devlin, commandant of DLI. "They are not happy with the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy."

Under the policy, if a member of the military comes forward and states that he or she is gay, the commander is required to conduct an investigation. Devlin said an investigation was launched approximately three weeks ago after two students came forward and declared they were lesbians.

According to the network's report, an Air Force master sergeant and a senior airman launched an investigation in the spring of 1999 to determine the sexual orientation of A-Flight female student leaders under their command. One of the female students, Airman First Class Deanna Grossi, 20, said her ordeal began last April, when the master sergeant called her into his office out of the blue for questioning.

"He asked if I knew about fellow student leaders who were 'more than just friends,'" Grossi said. "He said, 'I've been hearing rumors, and wanted to see if you were involved.' Things pretty much went downhill from there."

Under "don't ask, don't tell," superiors are not supposed to ask about the sexual orientation of troops in their command unless authorized by an investigation instigated by a commander, but the master sergeant had no such authorization, the report said.

When Grossi returned to her Serbian language classes, she discovered the rumors had somehow leaked to her classmates. "People would start making little comments. Then it got to the point where my teachers were making comments. It became a big mess," Grossi said.

Grossi said that after she returned from a trip to San Francisco, her language teachers asked whether she had "fun ... with your girlfriend. I mean boyfriend."

Commandant Devlin attributed the comment to a bilingual misunderstanding. "If that question were asked in a foreign language class, that could be a perfectly normal question," Devlin said.

In another incident, a classmate asked how to say "rainbow," a symbol of gay pride, in Serbian, then said "oh, Grossi should know."

Grossi said her superiors at DLI questioned her about her sexual orientation approximately five times, while the taunting grew to include crude gestures as well as comments.

"It got to the point where I became almost a recluse. I thought as soon as I left Monterey, it would end."

Some women reported dating men to throw off the harassment; one reported that dating only escalated the taunting.

Devlin said these types of incidents do occur in society, but that DLI has a "zero tolerance" policy against harassment and investigates all reports.

Airman First Class John Petrozino, 21, faced rumors started in June 1999 that he had "made out with a guy" in the DLI parking lot, the report said. Petrozino answered that he had been with a female friend who had short hair, and even introduced her to his roommate. But after the incident, the roommate yelled in the barracks hallway, "We still have a faggot on flight."

"He thought it was his duty to investigate the rumor and report to command with it.. That in itself was a violation (of the policy), but he didn't understand that," Petrozino said.

The airman's ignorance of the policy may stem from the shortcomings in Air Force training policies. Petrozino and Grossi said that during basic training, airmen in their flights received virtually no education regarding "don't ask, don't tell."

Petrozino said the incident drove him to write a letter to his commander stating that he was gay and requesting to remain in the Air Force if he could be assured of no reprisals for his sexual orientation. He was honorably discharged Sept. 23, 1999.

According to the report, other DLI airmen said their classmates routinely made hostile anti-gay comments and threats including such statements as, "If I ever found out someone is a faggot, I would kill him because faggots do not belong in the military" and "Gay people shouldn't have joined in the first place. They don't deserve to serve our country."

The Defense Language Institute has a mandatory clarification program regarding "don't ask, don't tell" for all students, instructors and commanders, Devlin said.

"All types of people come into the military. It is really a microcosm of our society," Devlin said. "A uniform does not change concepts and ideals. But no one has the right to discriminate."

In August 1999, the Defense Department announced that all service members would undergo training to clarify the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. New guidelines called for recruits to receive training explaining that harassment of any service member is unacceptable, according to a defense Department press release.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network report alleges that the anti-gay atmosphere also infected the school's civilian instructors. According to the report, one instructor asked a student if he was gay in front of his entire class, and later asked if he had a girlfriend or if he was going to get one.

The report alleges that officers investigating harassment cases asked inappropriate questions that violated "don't ask, don't tell," and could have jeopardized the servicemen's chances for an honorable discharge.

The "witch hunt," according to the report, ruined the promising careers of some of the military's best and brightest, at a time when military enlistment is plunging. In 1998, the military lost 37 percent of new recruits before they completed their first enlistment, its highest loss rate ever.

The Air Force has completed its investigation into the allegations of anti-gay harassment at DLI. According to David Smith, a public affairs officer with the Air Force, the report's findings are now under review.

Any findings, however, are too little, too late for former DLI student Deanna Grossi.

Two days after she arrived at her new post at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas in December 1999, Grossi's superiors questioned her again about her sexual orientation.

"There was no way to continue with my career because it would follow me forever," Grossi said. "I wanted to wait my four years and continue on. But they made it impossible for me to do that ... I hit my breaking point and lost the urge to conform."

Deciding that she didn't want this to happen to anyone else, she wrote a letter to her superiors stating that she was gay and that the questioning she had undergone over her sexual orientation was unwarranted. In the letter, she also requested an honorable discharge.

"What they did to me was wrong," Grossi said. "Things need to change at DLI."

--Kathleen M. Wong and Jane Haseldine