Revisiting 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

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Timothy A. Clark / AFP / Getty

Protestors demonstrate against the U.S. military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy at a recruitment center in New York City's Times Sqare

Today Congress is holding its first hearing in 15 years on the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy barring bisexuals, gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. The hearings, called by a House Armed Services subcommittee, are likely to be more notable for the fact that they are being held at all rather than anything of substance they may produce. The simple fact that the hearings are taking place offers the most significant indication yet that the U.S. is finally reconsidering its strange policy of enforced hypocrisy that came to be called "Don't ask, don't tell." The hearings should also provide a delicate moment for Senator Barack Obama, who has said he opposes "Don't ask, don't tell" but is also reportedly considering one of its major architects, former Senator Sam Nunn, to be his running mate.

"Don't ask, don't tell" was itself a misnomer, a media-friendly term that did not accurately describe the 1993 law passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Clinton. The law did not actually prevent the Pentagon from "asking" any service member or potential service member whether he or she is gay. The Pentagon did agree to stop asking about sexuality in recruitment forms and interviews, but it never agreed to stop investigating whether those serving in the military are gay. That's why discharges of gays did not substantially decrease after the law was enacted. Compare the period between 1986 and 1990 with the period a decade later, between 1996 and 2000. According to Randy Shilts' 1993 book Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military, during the first period, which was prior to "Don't ask, don't tell," the Pentagon discharged 5,951 service members for being gay. During the second period, Defense Department figures show that 5,327 gays were discharged — a modest decline of 10%.

Military commanders had only to read the law to see that Congress wasn't serious about protecting gay service members. The law's text is a tissue of barely disguised bigotry. For instance, it points out that service members must "accept living conditions and working conditions that are often spartan, primitive and characterized by forced intimacy, with little or no privacy." One can forgive the historically inappropriate reference to the Spartans — fierce warriors whose loyalty to one another in no way excluded sexual relationships, and indeed may have encouraged them. But the specter of "forced intimacy" recalled the worst kind of anti-gay bigotry: the notion that gays can't control themselves or respect sexual privacy. Nunn himself led reporters and colleagues on an infamous "field hearing" into the sleeping quarters and showers of ships and submarines in May 1993. It was demeaning and schoolboyishly prurient, but as icky demagoguery, the stunt worked brilliantly.

Nunn has never repudiated his tactics, and although he recently said that the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy should be reevaluated, he has not said whether he personally opposes it. (Which is why activists have told the Obama campaign that picking Nunn would cause problems with gay fund raising.) For his part, Obama has long said he would repeal the policy, but he has not said how or when he would do so. Because the law gives the Secretary of Defense the sole power to devise the "procedures" under which homosexual conduct or statements are discovered, a President Obama could, on Day 1, instruct his new Secretary to simply stop investigating gays. The current law also says that the Secretary has the power to determine that keeping a gay service member is "in the best interest of the armed forces." Obama could instruct the Pentagon that, as a general matter, it is never "in the best interest of the armed forces" to expel a service member solely for saying he is gay or bisexual.

When asked Tuesday if Obama would use executive or legislative means — or a combination thereof — to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell," campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor issued a statement saying, "As President, Senator Obama would work in consultation with our military leaders to submit legislation to Congress repealing 'Don't ask, don't tell' and advocate for its passage." The trouble is, while the long legislative process of repealing the law unspools, many gays in the military will almost certainly lose their jobs. Because the military is fighting two wars, commanders discharge only about 600 bisexuals, gays and lesbians each year, down from about 1,200 a year in the late '90s. But repealing "Don't ask, don't tell" could take a year or more.

This congressional hearing will turn on the key question of whether the presence of out gays would hurt unit cohesion, discipline and morale. Earlier this month a pro-gay University of California think tank, the Michael D. Palm Center, issued a report authored by three retired generals and a retired admiral that studied that question for more than a year. The retired brass couldn't find any evidence that allowing gays to be open would hurt the military, but they did find some evidence that kicking gays out hurts. One heterosexual officer who just got back from Iraq told the authors that "friction resulting from the prosecution of service members found to be gay is far greater than the friction that results from simply knowing a gay person."

The report also mentions the results of a Zogby poll conducted for the Palm Center in 2006. That poll, which surveyed 545 military personnel who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, found that only 37% of the respondents opposed openly gay military service. More important, of the 125 survey respondents who knew for sure that at least one person in their unit was gay or lesbian, 64% said it had "no impact" on the unit's morale. Three-quarters of the total sample said they were "comfortable" in the presence of gays and lesbians. One assumes that, despite Senator Nunn's fears, they had not been groped in the shower.

These figures reflect the experience of hundreds of thousands of military personnel who have known bisexual, gay and lesbian colleagues. In practice, many gays serve openly, or nearly so. I have a friend who enlisted in the Army after the Iraq war began and who currently serves in Korea. I'll call him Stephen. When I reached him in Korea the other night, Stephen told me that "no one cares" that he's gay, even though he goes to gay bars (where he sees roughly 30 other American service members), e-mails friends about guys he is dating and posts suggestive messages about men on his Facebook page. In that context, he mentioned an argument against "Don't ask, don't tell" that I hadn't thought of: he said many unscrupulous gays use it as a "get-out-of-jail-free card" when they decide they want to leave the military early, even if they are not suffering under the policy. Stephen said so many gays use "Don't ask, don't tell" to leave early that commanders routinely overlook even blatant violations, including one incident in which military police actually caught two Army men in bed together.

Recently, conservatives have made the argument that if Americans like Stephen were allowed to serve openly, young heterosexuals from conservative families would stop enlisting. "Would we risk doing away with this system that works, where American families sit around the dinner table and they make a decision that their young man or young woman is going to go into this military because they share the values of that military?" asked GOP Congressman Duncan Hunter on 60 Minutes last year.

But the Zogby poll has an answer to this: only 2% of respondents said they would not have joined the military if gays were allowed to serve openly. That translates to a loss of about 4,000 service members per year — the same number of gays and lesbians who decline to re-enlist because of "Don't ask, don't tell" or who are discharged under the policy. That calculation means keeping or repealing "Don't ask, don't tell" would be a wash in terms of numbers. It forces a question we have postponed for 15 years: Do we want a military where Americans are not forced to lie about their most important emotional bonds?