A new defense spending bill in the United States could allow and even protect discrimination against gays, lesbians, and other minorities in the military. The controversial provisions in the bill, which come from a proposal by Representative Todd Akin, whose remarks about “legitimate rape” caused a stir last year, require the military to accommodate “strongly-held beliefs,” including anti-gay bias. The bill reads: “The Armed Forces shall accommodate the beliefs of a member of the armed forces reflecting the conscience, moral principles, and religious beliefs of the member,” and goes on to say that the military must make every effort not to let such beliefs pave the way for discrimination against the member who holds them – apparently ignoring the discrimination which could stem from them. Akin’s original proposal focused on members’ beliefs regarding “appropriate and inappropriate expression of human sexuality.” Exactly what actions this provision would allow are unclear and may be up to individual interpretation; as many opposed to the bill have stated, therein lies the problem. The language in the bill could, for example, give a military doctor the grounds to refuse certain services to a woman who has had premarital sex, or allow a soldier to refuse to serve with gays or lesbians. Those opposed to the bill ask how the military would deal with such an issue: Would their responsibility be to said soldier, or to the gay soldier who could potentially be serving with him? Defenders of the bill say the new language is not as dramatic as it is made out to be, and merely defends the right of individuals to their private beliefs. However, many maintain that discriminatory actions could easily ensue from the bill, and that it could “generate endless issues” as well as legal conflicts within the military. Minorities including gays and women already face enough discrimination in the military without the allowances that this bill may add.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in December that an employer can fire an employee for being too attractive. The case was brought by a dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, whose boss, James Knight, fired her after his wife found text messages that the two had been sending each other outside work (despite a lack of evidence of an affair), and demanded that he fire her. Knight told Nelson that she had become a “detriment” to his family, even though he also said that she was “the best dental assistant he ever had.” Nelson called the incident “unlawful gender discrimination,” especially based on comments that Knight had made during the two years she worked for him regarding the way she dressed and other appearance related issues. Knight protested that it had nothing to do with her gender (nor, apparently, with her work), but merely the “threat” she posed to his marriage. The high court sided with Knight, writing in their decision that it may not be fair but certainly was legal for an employee to be fired “simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.” Nelson’s lawyers and other defenders warn that the all-male court does not understand the implications of this ruling. Indeed, dictatorial regimes have used similar arguments to keep women out of the workplace and even largely out of public, deeming them too much of a “distraction.” Here in the U.S., such arguments have even been used to defend rape, in saying that the way a woman dresses or acts makes her irresistible and thus a man is not responsible for how he acts toward her or for being unable to control himself. It is evident that this line of thinking is dangerous and can go much further than robbing women of opportunities, as it did in Nelson’s case, and should be condemned.
The controversial issue of inter-caste marriage sparked a new conflict in Tamil Nadu, India in November. In Dharmapuri district, a Vannier girl and Dalit (sometimes referred to as “untouchable”) man fell in love and were married, despite some opposition from both of their communities. But after the girl’s father allegedly committed suicide over the shame of his daughter’s actions, a mob of 1500 entered a region inhabited largely by Dalits and ransacked and burned the homes of over 300 Dalit families. On the political level, this has led to a campaign by one political party against these “supposed love marriages,” warning that they are “fraudulent alliances” orchestrated by Dalit leaders to gain power and status for this highly oppressed community. Dalit activists say this is a reaction by the other castes to keep the Dalits in their historically marginalized place, as many Dalits have in recent times begun earning higher wages and improving their standard of living due to the easy availability of jobs in nearby Bangalore (which, in turn, means there is less farm labor available locally, leading to another source of frustration for some upper castes, especially the Vannier, who control much of the land in the area). These activists believe the attack was planned and intentional, as the other castes (particularly Vannier, which make up about 80 percent of the population of Dharmapuri) are wary of the Dalits gaining any power. Vannier leaders deny these charges, saying it was simply an outburst of anger. Whatever the case, this is only one example of the deeply entrenched, conflictual, and unequal caste system that India and some neighboring countries must address in order for both development and peace to flourish.