Civil Liberties

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.