Don't Mourn "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Gays are better off without it

On July 23, the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House of Representatives will debate the future of the policy known to most Americans as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." As committee chair, Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) is in for a busy day. The law, which was mostly intended to protect gay and lesbian soldiers from discrimination, is complicated and self-defeating. And the social conservatives who necessitated the policy aren't backing down.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has two parts. No one, regardless of rank, can ask or require a soldier to reveal anything regarding his or her sexual orientation. That's the simple part of the policy. More complicated is the "Don't Tell" clause, which promises to discharge any "member [who] has said that he or she is a homosexual or bisexual, or made some other statement that indicates a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts."

I had my first and only experience with the unintentional absurdities of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" during my very short stint in the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). I was sitting across the desk from Army Captain Bart Johnke, then a professor of military science and head of the ROTC program at Stetson University, reviewing my 6-year contract. Captain Johnke walked me through a checklist: Have you ever committed a felony? No. Have you ever used a mind-altering drug other than marijuana? No. Have you used marijuana in the last three years? Ye—er, no. And then Captain Johnke paused.

"Here we go," he said. "We don't need to talk about this next section. Just read this bit here"—he pointed to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," clause. "Remember what it says, and we'll move on to the next section."

I read the "Don't tell" section and wanted to ask Captain Johnke if sarcastic demands for fellatio from fellow male cadets revealed a "propensity to engage in homosexual acts," but he cut me off before I could elaborate on my query.

"Listen," he said. "I can't answer your questions and you can't tell me anything. If you tell me something regarding sexual orientation, no matter what you plan to say," here he raised his eyebrows until they blended with his flat top. "I can't let you in. The policy is very clear on that. So let's move on."

Enacted at the behest of President Bill Clinton, the Military Personnel Eligibility Act of 1993—"Don't Ask, Don't Tell's" official name—was hailed by civil rights advocates as a victory for gays and lesbians. But in order to implement Clinton's policy, Democrats found themselves bowing to congressional Republicans and banning openly gay soldiers.

Even opponents of an inclusive military point out that "Don't Ask" doesn't work. Elaine Donnelly at the Center for Military Readiness (an advocate of a "straight" military) argues that, in some cases, the 1993 law actually makes it easier to get rid of gays:

[T]he 1993 homosexual conduct law allows a military person to "rebut the presumption" of homosexual conduct, but only under narrow circumstances—i.e., a service member says or does something entirely out of character while intoxicated, or to escape military service. In general, however: "Discharging soldiers based solely upon their self-identification as a homosexual without additional evidence of homosexual conduct avoided the necessity for intrusive investigations and inquiries into the soldiers' sexual practices."

Thus, thanks to the "Don't Tell" clause, the military can boot gays more easily than before, under the auspices of sparing them from "intrusive investigations." In turn, the "Don't Ask" part of the policy rewards assumption over inquiry.

In the 15 years since the bill's passage, 12,000 service members have been discharged for refusing to abide by the policy. Granted, those numbers have been steadily decreasing in step with the waning popularity of the Iraq war, but gay rights advocates shouldn't confuse utility with acceptance. Just because half as many openly gay soldiers were booted in 2006 as 2001 doesn't mean the culture has changed. In fact, according to a recent Military Times poll, only 31 percent of active duty personnel think gays should be allowed to openly serve, while 57 percent think they should not. And the numbers aren't much different in the reserves, where 32 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove, or in the ranks of the retired, where 30 percent approved of gay service, and 60 percent disagreed.

Those numbers suggest that there's more to recent reports of openly gay soldiers going unreprimanded than gay rights activists would like to believe. Rather than a shift to liberal inclusiveness, the likely explanation is the reality of wartime: Officers need every warm body they can get. The return to a peacetime military will almost certainly bring a resurgence in career-minded enlistees, as well as less pressure on officers to overlook "undesirables" in order to maintain an effective fighting force.

Underneath the policy is the theory that gay troops strain the social order of the military. But the growing numbers of openly gay troops provides strong evidence that gay soldiers can perform their duties alongside straight soldiers in a cohesive unit. Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Clinton and a former opponent of open service, has since changed his tune: "I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces."

According to the Washington Blade, Rep. Davis has more on her mind than doing away with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Davis recently proposed the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would replace "Don't Ask" with a non-discrimination policy. The bill has widespread support among Democrats, and with a publicity push from Wednesday's hearing, could potentially get enough support to make it to the Senate. Such a bill would prevent the discharge of qualified soldiers, such as Arabic linguists, while vindicating the unknown number of soldiers who risk their lives "for freedom," yet are forced to hide their sexual orientation.

Mike Riggs is City Lights editor at Washington City Paper.

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  • ||

    I don't like the policy either, but allowing gays to serve openly is one of those things I wouldn't want to force upon the military. (Yes, I realize you could have made the same argument for maintaining a racially segregated military).

    In any event, Reason.com never ceases to impress with the pictures that accompany the articles.

  • tim||

    *Yes, I realize you could have made the same argument for maintaining a racially segregated military*

    Could? It was made. Furiously. And the military was told to stuff it. And it survived.

  • ||

    Too bad, "don't ask don't tell" doesn't apply to responsible cannibis consumption. "My body, my choice" doesn't either.

  • KipEsquire||

    "In the 15 years since the bill's passage, 12,000 service members have been discharged for refusing to abide by the policy."

    That's an unfairly loaded way of phrasing it. Many, many discharged gays made reasonable, even herculean, efforts to "stay closeted" but were expelled anyway because all too often their colleagues and supervisors forgot that pesky "third don't" -- Don't Pursue.

  • Bingo||

    Shouldn't Mike be out getting coffee instead of pretending he knows how to write articles like the big kids?

  • ||

    In the 15 years since the bill's passage, 12,000 service members have been discharged for refusing to abide by the policy.

    And how many have been beaten to death by their brothers in arms for the crime of being gay?

  • Jennifer||

    I don't like the policy either, but allowing gays to serve openly is one of those things I wouldn't want to force upon the military.

    Because otherwise, our big strong military men might occasionally have to deal with expressions of sexual interest from men they find unattractive ... i.e., the same thing I've been dealing with ever since I turned thirteen. Maybe that's why we're doing so badly in our current overseas adventures: because our military is staffed by wimpy guys who, despite having guns and ammo and body armor and the like, are nonetheless too wussified to handle the type of stress I've been handling ever since I was a frail, fragile, weak-bodied little teenage girl. Whose life ambition at the time was to move to a state where polygamy was legal so I could marry three-fifths of Duran Duran. Yet I was still stronger-minded and more sensible than today's Army.

  • ||

    -"Don't Ask, Don't Tell's" official name-was hailed by civil rights advocates as a victory for gays and lesbians.




    The Bill Clinton spin machine may have pitched it as such, but I don't know any gay person who was around at the time that was naïve enough to buy it. The vocal public repudiation by David Mixner back then can attest to that. Perhaps someone at Reason could have contacted Mr. Mixner to get a first person account.


  • ||

    Good question, Warren, why don't you look for an answer? Offhand, I can only think of one, Barry Winchell, who might not have been gay.

  • ||

    Ray -
    I was in middle school at the time, and of course *now* we all know it's a lousy policy, but a few older gay people I know were, at least, really excited about Clinton as a pro-gay-rights president.
    As far as the specifics of their view at the time on that policy, I can't recall. But Clinton was heralded as the queer-friendly candidate.

  • ||

    A professor of mine had a very interesting take on the DADT policy with regards to gays in the military. "the romans, they were the most glorious army in the world for many centuries partly because they populated their ranks with lovers. Imagine fighting beside your best friend or brother and watching them come under attack. Now imagine how lovers would defend each other"
    By no means am I quoting a history text here, I'm just making an observation. People seem to be reacting only to what possible negatives could arise from DADT being removed.

  • ||

    Maybe that's why we're doing so badly in our current overseas adventures

    We are? I thought we had Iraq pretty well in hand, military-security-wise, and the problems in Afghanistan tend to crop up (a) in areas for which our allies have responsibility and/or (b) on the Pakistani border, which for political, not military, reasons we do not cross even in "hot pursuit."

  • gmatts||

    I think this article was just an excuse to get another "REAL JOCK" add on this site.

  • gmatts||

    "Shouldn't Mike be out getting coffee instead of pretending he knows how to write articles like the big kids?"

    After Mike picks up Nick Gillespie's black jeans, black t-shirt and black jacket from the cleaners the Reason staff lets him do what he wants.

  • ||

    "Don't Ask, Don't Tell's" official name-was hailed by civil rights advocates as a victory for gays and lesbians.

    Yes, some people (mostly Clinton partisans) did hail this as a victory, but most (rightly)saw it as the disaster it turned out to be.

    Clinton did this as one of his first acts in office, setting the tone for the rest of his administration.

    The proper way for this to be done is an executive order directing the DOD to come up with a plan for integrating gay servicemembers, and give them plenty of time (months) in which to get used to the idea.

  • ||

    Shouldn't Mike be out getting coffee instead of pretending he knows how to write articles like the big kids?

    He's doing a better job than KM-W, who is presumably more experienced and actually paid.

  • ||

    But Clinton was heralded as the queer-friendly candidate.



    Yes, he was. And during his candidacy, the heralding was orchestrated by David Mixner. Except the minute it became politically expedient, Clinton threw gay people under the bus. Here's Mixner in 2008:

    As I recall, the policy was never discussed as a transitional step. It was hastily produced and passed, by a Democratic President and Congress, to extract the new administration from of a political mess of its own making.




    In 1992, Andrew Sullivan wrote The New Republic editorial endorsing Clinton for President, in no small part because of Clinton's eloquence on gay issues on the campaign trail. Read on.




  • ||

    I did 20 years and 4 days active duty. I did not care what sexual peccadillos/preferences other service members possessed. What thinking person would?

    Aside - Mike Riggs, don't listen to these bozos. The Lewinsky jokes are surely forthcomiing. I've been surprised* to see your name on some interesting, well written posts.

    * After all, you are just an intern. ;-)

  • First Little Pig||

    The Greeks beat the Persians when the army motto was "never leave your buddy's behind"....

    All kidding aside, integrating gays into the military will do more for dragging the South into the modern era than any other policy I can imagine (that's including the teaching of evolution).....

    I await your counter-attacks with glee, gentlemen.

  • TonyQ||

    The policy was a compromise between Clinton's call for open service and the right's call for outright banning. This wasn't Clinton's idea.

  • Kolohe||

    Have you used marijuana in the last three years? Ye-er, no

    You can say yes, as long as you can currently pass a drug test, and it was not 'habitual' - this comprises the majority of the 'moral waivers' that those (ironically mostly on the left) decry when they say that the army recruiters et al are dangerously lowering standards.

    And Elaine Donnelly is mainly an advocate of an all male military. (have to go to the Morrisepedia to see if this is ironic as well)

    I have some experience with sailors being discharged early, (but not under DA,DT). In many even a majority of these cases, there is a sizeable factor determined by the serviceman his/herself to determine whether they are discharged - specifically with medical discharges. There are numerous disqualifying medical conditions, some obvious, some not. And in many of these cases, there is not really an objective standard. It can actually come down to the difference between a person playing up (a real) condition to get out, or playing down (again a real) condition to stay in.

    FWIW.

    (Am not equating 'teh gay' to a medical condition. Am citing cases where morally neutral circumstances leads to the ability for a person to make a conscious decision on how they want to handle it - with both options being morally neutral as well.)

  • zoltan||

    I just read in the local UT newspaper that 190,000 women have served or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. With those numbers, I wonder if Elaine Donnelly wants a losing military, or at least an ineffective and culturally frustrating one (in regards to military personnel having to search female Muslims, female service members are certainly preferred to male).

  • ||

    Donnelly clearly lives in a fantasy land where there are droves and droves of men ready and able to join the military to replace all of the women currently there.

  • ||

    I know several Iraq War vets who are openly gay. The military was perfectly happy to pretend not to notice when their service was needed, but now that their war tours are over, they live in constant fear of being booted out, stripped of benefits, and have their honorable service to our country thanked with disgrace.

    Our nation should be deeply ashamed of the way it treats gay soldiers under current policy.

  • jtuf||

    We've managaed to have heterosexual women join the military, allowing homosexuals shouldn't add any new complications. Just have them follow the same sexual harassment policies as everyone else.

  • ||

    "those numbers have been steadily decreasing in step with the waning popularity of the Iraq war"
    way to make sure you throw Iraq in every post!

    It takes only a brief study of history to show that gay soldiers were usually not discharged during war, no matter what war, because there is a war on and we need soldiers. Nothing to do with popularity.

  • Richard||

    Ok, I would agree that the military ban on gay men and women is silly and without much merit -- in terms of the fact that, "you don't need to be straight to shoot straight".

    Yet, will young (often not terribly educated) young men or women want to live in such close prox. to some one that they know or suspects "prefers" same-sex company? Yeah, sexism and homophbia are stupid but their better be a real time pratical policy for dealing with it.

    A good, common sense sexual harassment policy would be clear. But, we have to be ready to deal with the, "I don't want to shower with a fag", or the occashiomal 'blanket party'. We also have to deal with the UCMJ current ban on 'sodomy'.

    In 1992, I probably -- had I been in charge -- lifted the ban, but had segregated gay units or something as a temporary measure. We had to do it for blacks and women and thus maybe we had to have do it for gays and it would have allowed them to prove that they are just as good at fighting/dying for their country.

    Clinton tried, but the homophobic opponents to lifting the ban were much, much more organized and were on hand to call/fax/write their Congressman.

    Also, what have other nations done? The UK, fairly close to the US culturally, has recently lifted its ban.

  • ||

    I often thought about this -- again as a temporary measure; why not have units of gay men and straight women?

  • ||

    You really don't know how the military works, do you? There are essentially NO 'openly gay' soldiers in the Army. There is a significant number of 'generally assumed to be gay' and 'those who may have told a few friends' they are gay, however.

  • Patty||

    "We've managaed to have heterosexual women join the military, allowing homosexuals shouldn't add any new complications. Just have them follow the same sexual harassment policies as everyone else."

    I agree 100%

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