Decommissioning "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the Clinton Administration’s policy on gays in the military, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It is a purported relaxation of the uniform ban that prevailed prior to 1993. An old adage cautions a person against seeing either sausages or legislation being made, and the military’s current policy is a prime example. It was the result of a collision between a new President who was on record as having “loathed” the military, a feckless Congress, and a rigid Pentagon whose reiteration of the mantra that gays would damage “unit cohesion” and impair overall “effectiveness” won the day.

The proposition that allowing gays to serve would damage the effectiveness of the military was not justified by tangible evidence in 1993, and it carries even less credibility today. A recent article in Parameters, a journal of the U.S. Army War College, labels “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as “a politically expedient policy that pleased no one.” Few would dispute this characterization. In fact, the policy has actually increased the number of service members discharged on the basis of their sexual orientation, from 617 in 1994 up to 1250 in 2001. One high-profile exception–and an example of how uneven the policy is in application–is Arizona legislator Steve May, who fought the Army to a legal standstill for years.

The Parameters article, written by Professor Aaron Belkin, raises several important concerns. First, he observes that there is little evidence that military effectiveness was in fact impaired in four nations that have lifted their exclusionary policies–the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Israel. Belkin cedes an all-important point in the overall debate by evaluating the issue using the military’s lexicon of “effectiveness.”

The burden of proof should not lie with those challenging a status quo that satisfies no one. For that burden has never been carried by those who should have it: government actors who hide behind ambiguous tautologies in their execution of invidious discrimination. However imperfect the analogy may be, it is the same type of slipshod group-think that prevented (and in some cases, still prevents) racial minorities from leadership positions in almost every facet of American life.

Second, Belkin notes that lifting of the ban has not led to an onslaught of soldiers openly acknowledging their sexual orientation. As with other professions, falling outside of the sexual “norm” is still a liability. So the premonitions of widespread homosexuality in the ranks are unfounded. Even the entertainment industry, which has a higher proportion of gays than most other employment venues, has yet to forward a gay superstar.

Concerns over a mass “coming out” sidesteps yet another core issue in this debate. Simply put, why should the government retain the arbitrary ability to deny employment to an entire class of individuals, especially as it mandates an ever increasing number of regulations (and concurrent costs) on the hiring and firing practices of private employers?

Neither the court system nor Congress is likely to effect change. In Israel and Australia, their parliamentary bodies took the issue head on, and in the UK and Canada the final resolution came from the courts. This country is now in a state of perpetual war. Chief Justice Rehnquist recognized in his book, All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime, that the American judiciary has historically abided by the ancient Roman legal maxim “in times of war, the law is silent.” Thus, even in a post-Lawrence v. Texas era the judicial branch will almost summarily defer to the other branches of government.

Congress is unlikely to consider the plight of a silent and maligned minority in the face of “larger” issues like the ever-escalating human and financial costs of Middle East operations. If any of those soldiers currently in harm’s way are faced with the pervasive fear of harassment and arbitrary discharge, the Beltway response is that of a collective yawn, if not an indignant “so what?”

Still, as the late conservative icon Barry Goldwater proclaimed in 1993, “it’s high time to pull the curtains on this charade of policy.” Not only is it an unnecessary financial expenditure, it institutionalizes the very type of harm that the policy is supposed to prevent. How can it possibly be that exacerbating the social stigma one faces as a sexual minority advance military “effectiveness?” “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”–by its mere existence and through its vigilant enforcement–sends a powerful message from the government to its citizens. That message, to be blunt, is reminiscent of the Help Wanted ads of a bygone age, “Queers need not apply.” What a crass and cowardly message to send, especially from an institution that currently grapples with accusations of rampant (hetero)sexual assault at the Air Force Academy.

President Bush can end this “charade of policy” with the stroke of a pen. The wellspring of support he enjoys among the military brass and their troops enables him to do so. It may not get him an enthusiastic “huah.” But his obligations reach further than those corporate boards who have already recognized that gays make important contributions to their organizations. One is tempted to invoke the ethereal nature of “compassion,” but I prefer the hard, precise language of the Declaration of Independence, which affirms the individual’s inalienable right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights do not vanish once enlistment papers are signed, and the deprivation of them should not be made a condition of employment.

If the military is obliged by the current Commander-in-Chief to continually infringe upon rights acknowledged in our founding document, it is much more than the policy itself that is a charade.

Nikos A. Leverenz is a writer living in Sacramento, California.

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