Zoe Dunning is a Naval Academy graduate, retired Navy Commander, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal advocate who stood alongside President Obama when he signed the repeal bill last month. I remember Zoe’s name from back when we were fighting to lift the ban in 1993. Zoe came out that year, while in the Navy Reserves, and subsequently won her court battle to stay in the military. She served our country as an openly gay service member for 13 years.
I asked Zoe if, as someone who served three years aboard an aircraft carrier, she’d be interested in writing for us about why the recent brouhaha over an anti-gay Navy video matters. Here is Zoe’s piece:
The recently publicized video that was filmed on the USS Enterprise a few years back doesn’t shock this retired Navy Commander for its content as much as for its demonstration of complete lack of Executive Officer leadership. I served three years aboard an aircraft carrier and I understand the need to maintain morale and break up the monotony of months at sea with some humor. If this were an underground video made by a young petty officer and distributed throughout the crew over email, it would not make the news. That sort of thing likely happens on a daily basis out at sea.
What makes this news is that the producer, writer, director and main star of these videos is the ship’s Executive Officer (XO for short) and broadcast across the ship’s internal television network to the entire crew. For those who have not served in the Navy, the Executive Officer’s primary responsibility is the ship’s good order and discipline. When someone gets in trouble or violates a regulation, they take the sailor to the XO for punishment. He or she is the Sheriff in town, and the Commanding Officer the Judge. So when the ship’s Sheriff is knowingly producing (on the ship’s equipment) videos that mock and denigrate women, gays and lesbians (and even Surface Warfare Officers), it sends a strong signal to the entire crew as to what is acceptable behavior. Even if someone turned the TV off or walked away, the ship’s chatter the next day would be all about the video. You wouldn’t be able to escape it.
When the XO tries to make a disclaimer each episode that the Commanding Officer (CO) and Admiral don’t know about it and should not be subject to any complaints, he just doesn’t get it. The CO and Admiral are accountable for EVERYTHING that happens on a ship. That’s why it’s such a tough job. That’s why COs are relieved of command when one of their officers runs the ship aground while the CO is sleeping. Accountability doesn’t go to sleep and can’t be swept away with disclaimers. Which is why I think more heads will roll as a result of this investigation.
On a final note, as a retired female Naval officer who watched all military women struggle to be taken seriously by our male counterparts as professional colleagues, I can empathize with how the women on the Enterprise must have felt. Your sheriff that is supposed to protect you from harassment and bullying is calling you “chicks” and incorporating video shots of you dancing or showering naked together. That’s how he thinks of you, and that’s how he wants the rest of the crew to think of you. It’s devastating if you want to serve as a respected peer alongside your shipmates. Talk about a hostile work environment.