The November 14 San Francisco School Board vote to phase out JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) from high schools in the district was a litmus test on how pro-gay the city really is. The Board passed the test with flying colors, approving the resolution from openly gay member Mark Sanchez with a thumbs up from Sarah Lipson, Eric Mar and Dan Kelly. Jill Wynns and Norman Yee turned thumbs down on the ouster of the Pentagon program whose purpose is to recruit young people into the military. Eddie Chin was absent. JROTC will be phased out over the next two years, with the Board establishing a task force to identify programming to replace it.
The vote was an affirmation of the ballot measure last year that put San Franciscans solidly in favor of keeping the military out of our schools.
Crucial to the fight to phase out JROTC was the conflict between the anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) military policy and the School District’s anti-discrimination code, which prohibits doing business with institutions that exclude people on the basis of sexual orientation, race, sex, etc. Though local JROTC leaders claim that they embrace out LGBT students, the reality is that those same queer kids can not join the military or receive any of the same benefits that heterosexuals do. Unless, of course, they go back into the closet and hope that nobody exposes them. Since DADT was first implemented in 1994, thousands of military personnel have been given the boot every year for being queer.
The resolution was not popular with about a hundred students who were bussed in by JROTC (with full community service credit, rumor had it) to sing its praises. In a style more befitting the anti-war activists who made up the anti-JROTC side, the high schoolers and their allies held a raucous rally outside the School District building prior to the meeting. With large banners in hand, they stood on either side of Franklin Street, trying to coax drivers to beep their car horns for them.
Speaker after speaker on the pro-JROTC side said that while they didn’t approve of DADT or even the war in Iraq, they supported the military program because it benefited kids. Of course, they forgot to mention the plight of queer kids who want to go beyond JROTC. Even Mayor Gavin Newsom, considered one of the biggest champions of gay rights in the country, missed that point entirely. He told the press earlier that day that he didn’t back the resolution because it wouldn’t effect change in the Pentagon’s policy. Wasn’t he the same mayor who defied state law and married LGBT couples in City Hall even though it had absolutely no effect on changing state marriage laws? Of course, it garnered a lot of support from the city’s politically powerful queer community. The anti-JROTC resolution wasn’t going to win him any points with anyone he cared about.
Students who spoke against JROTC told of kids being coerced into taking the program. One student said that his friends opposed the program but were afraid to show up at the meeting because they might get beaten up by JROTCers in school. Others speakers from various community organizations made the connection between the militarization of our society (including our schools) and the oil wars in the Middle East.
The low point of the meeting came when anti-resolution Board member Jill Wynns introduced one ludicrous amendment after another in an attempt to filibuster. She also questioned the integrity of fellow Board member Dan Kelly, a longtime peace activist and strong supporter of the phase-out of JROTC. In perhaps her most outrageous diatribe, she accused community activists who backed Sanchez’s resolution of not really wanting to find alternative programming.
In the end, those good old “San Francisco values” triumphed.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical, atheist, southern Italian, working class, queer performer, activist and writer.