Veteran Addresses Gender, Sexuality in Military
Published: Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 02:12
Lara Ballard (SFS ’91) recounted her experiences as a gay woman in the U.S. military to a joint class of history courses, “U.S. at War Since 1898” and “U.S. Women’s History,” Sunday evening.
Ballard, who attended Georgetown on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship, served in the military from 1991 to 1995, after which she attended Columbia Law School. She now works for the State Department.
Ballard illustrated the nature of gender relations in the military by recounting a sexual assault incident that occurred in a unit while she was serving — the only one she knew of in her four years of service.
“Everyone in the unit rallied around [the victim] … [and] it seemed like she had 90 overprotective brothers, ready to kill this guy if they could find him,” Ballard said. “Gender relations in a unit can feel like a bunch of siblings. It’s usually the case that if a woman is experiencing harassment, it’s coming from someone outside the unit, and her unit rushes to her defense.”
Ballard differentiated between sexual harassment and assault in the military context.
“Sexual harassment is different from rape,” Ballard said. “There’s a bunch of sexist guys in the military, and there will always be sexist guys in the military, but the vast majority of them won’t assault anyone. Most of them are perfectly capable of working with women and keeping their attitudes to themselves.”
Ballard emphasized that the current military is not the same as it was when she served.
“War really changes a military, and I served during peacetime,” Ballard said. “So all of these sexual harassment or assault circumstances that are occurring are very alien to me — that’s not the military that I remember. It really suggests a chaos and lawlessness in a dire environment where our troops are operating.”
Ballard urged more open communication between both genders so that military units can better function as a kind of family for their members.
“To really achieve better gender relations, you need to create an environment where people feel comfortable talking to each other just openly in any situation,” Ballard said. “Someone shouldn’t feel isolated to the point where she feels that it will be uncomfortable to talk about a case of sexual assault to her unit, which is supposed to be her family, her protection.”
Ballard, who was in active service when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation on gays serving in the military came into effect Dec. 21, 1993, spoke of the ramifications of the policy.
“‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ made things worse,” she said. “A lot of people served without incident before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ But [the policy] made it standardized and removed discretion. Even if someone was on your side, the policy felt very rigid in that if you said a word, you were gone.”
But mostly, Ballard focused on the fact that the “asking” never actually ended.
“Day to day, you can’t get around interactions with colleagues,” Ballard said. “Everyone wants to know who you’re dating.”
Ballard added that it was personally challenging to hide such an important part of her identity from her unit, with which she grew extremely close.
“A lot of people ask me why I can’t just not talk about [my sexuality],” Ballard said. “But psychologically, you have to realize that these people have to compartmentalize such a basic part of their personality. These people are in your unit — they trust you, so you have to make them feel like they really know you even when you need to hide such an essential part of yourself.”
Ballard, however, stressed that her experience is far from representative of that of all women in the military.
“I’m just one woman at a particular time, and I was only in the army,” Ballard said. “If you think, ‘Oh, now I’ve got the woman’s perspective,’ you really don’t.”