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Let’s (Not) Talk About Sex: The Role of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in the Military

“I was going to a gay rally and my friends told me to bring my uniform. It was raining that day, and I thought, ‘I’m not gonna wear my white dress uniform in the rain.’ Then I thought, ‘well, is it the rain or is it because I’m scared.’ So I changed out of my jeans and t-shirt and put on my uniform. At the rally there were reporters and they interviewed me about my participation in the rally. I could have given them a vague reason for being there such as: ‘well, it’s a human rights issue,’ but instead I told them about my girlfriend and the problems we were having. I knew it was the end of the road, or, the beginning of a new road.”  

Rhonda Davis’ story illustrates the hard choices gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender service people must face every day while in the military. Davis was discharged from the United States Armed Services in July 2006 under the auspices of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Don’t Harass Don’t Pursue policy, which prevents homosexuals from discussing their sexuality while in the military. Before then, Davis broadcast news on her base’s television and radio stations, reporting public affairs. Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell ended a promising career and stripped her of benefits and privileges, such as a pension, housing, and health care. 

The enforcement of Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell deprives GLBT people of their fundamental right to embrace their sexual identity and renders them vulnerable to any form of homophobic aggression. So how can queer people protect themselves against harassment when threatened by dishonorable discharge at any moment?

Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell originated in 1993 when the Clinton Administration began making noises about lifting the ban on gays in the military through an Executive Order. The Congress reacted by enacting the legislation commonly known as Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell (DADT), prohibiting gays and lesbians in the military from openly discussing their sexuality and relationships. The legislation prevents commanding officers from actively seeking knowledge about service-members’ sexual identities and includes anti-harassment provisions based on sexuality, but the degree to which these clauses are enforced varies significantly. Both former service members interviewed here were forced to endure verbal harassment. They also stated that homophobic remarks and behavior were far more tolerated than racist conduct or jokes. 

According to them, both racism and homophobia do exist in the military. But, contrary to civilian society, in the military racism seems to be an issue of less importance than homophobia. The military’s strong hierarchical structure favors the enforcement of policies. An assistant gunner, Pepe Johnson supervised and trained soldiers in Oklahoma but was discharged in 2003. He says: “Racist remarks were pretty common, but one race wasn’t more racist than any other.” Khary Polk, a current NYU graduate student studying the history of race and sexuality in the military explains the reason for the difference: “[The military] was conducting race workshops in the ‘70s, it took IBM until the early ‘90s to do that.” These and other progressive actions helped the military become one of the first well-integrated institutions in American society. 

One might argue that homosexuals’ non-status makes them the last minority, which can be freely harassed in the military. Thus, all aggressions focus on this group. In Johnson’s case the forced neglect of his sexual identity led to a reinforcement of his racial identity. But as racism is very low inside the army, once he came out, he did not experience any racial discrimination, but was still harassed daily by his superior officer for his sexuality. 

The Number Crunch

Professor Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (CSSMM), describes DADT as a policy that shields itself from scrutiny. Belkin wants to conduct a study measuring the effects of homosexual service members on unit cohesion but has lacked official cooperation for seven years now. Still, he continues to seek permission from the military. “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell affects every level of data collection,” says Belkin, “since it is not possible to undertake any open survey. But without the ability to empirically gather and analyze data within the military, the effectiveness of DADT can never be meaningfully understood.”

As any census of active queer military personal is difficult, the numbers used in this article come from the general 2000 Census and from Veteran surveys. Furthermore the numbers used do not apply to bisexual and transgender persons. The Urban Institute’s analysis of the 2000 Census data posits 36,000 queer persons actively serve in the military. This would generally mean that 2.5 persons out of hundred soldiers identify as gay or lesbian. If we devise those numbers into lesbians and gays there are striking differences. There are proportionally many more lesbians serving than gays. If we apply the numbers of veteran surveys to the military, roughly 20% of all women serving in the military are lesbians while only 3% of the men identify as gay. 

If we take the evaluation of the Census data, this pattern would still be confirmed (5% lesbian and 1.3% gays). This tendency is also confirmed by a higher discharge rate for lesbians than for gays. The racial division of gays and lesbians demonstrates proportionally more black and Hispanic gays than white gays, and, contrary to this, proportionally more white lesbian women than African American and Latino lesbians. 

Service members may not even know about DADT when they join. When Davis applied and told the recruiting officer she was a lesbian, he assured her that this was not a problem. She could even bring her girlfriend to the recruiting office during the interview. Because the recruiter needed to fill his quota of women – especially ones with a college education like Davis– he stressed the progressive nature of the military. The officer told her almost the complete opposite of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. “I could have said ‘I’m a mass-murderer’ and he would have told me ‘Oh, that’s no problem either’,” says Davis. Unfortunately the officer never mentioned the lack of social resources for GLBT people and their partners.

Once in the military, however, Davis quickly learned that she needed to be very guarded about her sexuality because she heard stories about others being discharged through Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. While stationed in Japan, her fellow service-members considered her stuck-up because she refused to party with them. She knew that in a relaxed atmosphere with alcohol she might accidentally let something slip about her girlfriend. “I had to feel people out […] it took me months and months to get comfortable enough to let certain people know I was gay […] I barely had a social life,” says Davis. 

Alienation and Loneliness

This emotional isolation and alienation of gays and lesbians in the military appears as a recurring theme in our interviews and among online accounts of veterans and active duty personnel. Belkin predicts that homosexuals in the military would serve longer terms if DADT were repealed because they would no longer lose their jobs or be forced to live a life of hypocrisy. A recent survey reported that approximately 21% percent of potential recruits would reconsider joining the military if DADT were repealed. But this number is questionable, since most recruits join the army because of social and economic advantages. As Belkin says, “It’s one thing to register your disapproval in a survey. It’s quite another to say, ‘Now that gays are allowed to admit who they are, I’m going to let that drive me away from the military career I wanted.” 

When asked if she would reenlist if Don’t Ask Don’t Tell were to be lifted, Davis replied “Absolutely.” Johnson similarly remarked, “I didn’t think the military would make me straight. I wanted to go into the military; I want to go back to the military.”

One might describe the relation between race, sexuality and recruitment this way: People of color are more likely to be low income without equitable access to higher education. Thus, queer people in lower socio-economic classes are lured by the promising future as a soldier. Given that recruiters rarely discuss the role of DADT inside the military, as in the case of Pepe Johnson, or even emphasize the modern stance of the military toward homosexuality as with Rhonda Davis, one should not wonder at the high prevalence of gays and lesbians in the military.

An analogy exists between the former treatment of African American soldiers and the current treatment of gay soldiers in the US military. The discrimination of both minority groups is and was justified using the same reasoning. The military’s only argument against allowing homosexuals to openly serve is that of unity cohesion. This same argument was used to segregate African Americans in the military until 1948. Neither instance says that the targeted minority is unfit for military service. It merely asserts that the majority, be it white or heterosexual, is not ready to accept the minority in its ranks. 

The history of African American soldiers’ integration rapidly proved the contrary. The use of black units alongside white units in WWII discredited popular prejudices inside the military and eventually led to the end of direct color discrimination during the Korean War. One could argue that in this case the military held a progressive outlook compared to 1950’s American society in general. So, why is this not the case for Gays? Belkin states, “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell is 99% animus and bigotry and 1% about unit cohesion.”

On the other hand, there is also a difference between African American and gay soldiers: while racially diverse African Americans cannot hide their skin-color, gays must hide their sexuality if they wish to remain in the military. DADT mandates homophobia through military policy. Upon learning of his discharge, many of Johnson’s friends distanced themselves from him to safeguard their careers. 

Also The DADT policy targets individuals rather than the entire group. This makes the establishment/existence of advocacy movements inside the army for the gay community almost impossible because any efforts immediately expose one to strict scrutiny and may endanger careers. Even straight officers may be discharged through Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell, and at the very least risk losing promotions by bringing homophobic behavior to the attention of their superiors. As a result, changes in policy will not come from inside the military, but must be issued by the congress through the pressure of civil society. 

Activism and Advocacy

Non-Governmental Organizations such as the Military Equality Alliance (MEA), Service members Legal Defense Network (SLDN), and the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (CSSMM) conduct grassroots organizing and lobbying. Jim Maloney, spokesman for the MEA, discussed his group’s recent efforts to change the minds of Representatives Selma Drake and Jo Ann Davis, members of the House Armed Services Committee, on Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell. Representative Marty Meehan of Massachusetts introduced HR 1059 or the Military Readiness Enhancement Act which would repeal DADT in 2005. The bill has 119 cosponsors, of which five are Republicans. According to Maloney, Representative Duncan Hunter of California is, “stopping [the bill] from seeing the light of day.” MEA’s efforts in the Senate involve trying to convince Senators Snowe, Collins, Smith (OR), and Chasey to introduce companion legislation to HR 1059. 

Of course there is also the lobby by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender groups to fight for marriage equality, but Davis contends that gay people are fighting the wrong battle: “Focus on the military, then marriage.”

Since the enactment of DADT, the media has seemingly forgotten about GLBT service members. Few articles are written and the issue receives very little attention among television media networks. Subsequently, the American populace rarely discusses the issue. With the War on Terror and the Iraq War stretching the effectiveness of the military, a discussion needs to occur about allowing every adult American citizen to join the military while openly expressing their identity, whatever it may be. 

Remarkably, support exists within the military for repealing DADT, and not just among the harassed gay men and women forced into the closet because of the policy. After speaking out at the rights rally, one of Davis’ superior officers told her, “You know, I liked you when you came in, but now I really respect you.” Johnson recalled a similar experience. One of his fellow NCO’s constantly iterated his ideas of equality for races, religion, and gender, but never homosexuality. He would yell at soldiers for the slightest remarks, but homophobia didn’t bother him. After learning that Johnson would be discharged as a homosexual, this officer, because he knew Johnson personally, changed his opinion of homosexuals. He learned that he couldn’t make such blanket statements anymore. Johnson wonders how many other minds he changed, but knows that as long as Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell dictates the careers of soldiers, he’ll never learn such information. 

What can be done to repeal Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell and institutionalize equality of sexuality inside the Army? It is sure that the military establishment will not remove this homophobic policy by itself. As we have seen, DADT is based on avoiding the subject of queer identity. This avoidance results in an invisibility of queer soldiers until they are removed from the ranks of their comrades. Furthermore they are being discharged individually, one by one. Hence, no basis exists for a strong advocacy movement to remove the policy inside the military. Thus, pressure must come from civil society. Constituents must write to their legislators, join grassroots organizations such as those listed above, and talk to the media about this issue. Advocacy groups such as the Military Equality Alliance, GLB & T Veteran association and well-known scholars like Belkin are joining forces to pressure Congress to remove Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If those forces are joined not only by the liberal media, but also by all groups advocating in favor of same sex marriage there can be a powerful network to establish both fundamental rights. 

Once President Bush is forced to recognize that “GLB & T people have fought in all of America's wars with great honor and distinction, and have shed their blood and died on strange battlefields alongside their heterosexual service members in defense of our great Nation” his administration will eventually also have to recognize the right of same sex marriage to queer soldiers and all queer Americans.


Literature and Sources

(Airforce Times, 10.10.05).

-The Economist, “Gay Warriors”, Feb. 24 2005.

-Gary J. Gates, “Gay Men and Lesbians in the US Military: Estimates from Census 2000”, The Urban Institute, Sept. 2004.

-Gary J. Gates, “Sexual Orientation of US Veterans”, The Urban Institute, July 2003.

-Morgan Hubbard, “Homosexuality, the Military, and the Race Analogy”, Areopagitica, 2006.

-Rick Maze, “Survey ‘Casts Doubt’ on Recruits Reluctance to serve with Gays”, Airforce Times, Oct. 2005.

-Davis R. Segal and Mady Wechsler Segal, “America’s Military Population”, in : Population Bulletin, Dec. 2004.

-CSSMM (Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military), University of California, Santa Barbara, http://www.gaymilitary.ucsb.edu/index.htm.

-Military Equality Alliance, Dallas Texas, http://www.militaryequality.org/

- New England Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Veterans, Inc., Boston, www.rainbowuniverse.com/newenglandGLBTVets/


Rhonda Davis, activist and former Navy Intelligence Officer.

Pepe Johnson, former Army Gunnery Sergeant. 

Jim Maloney, press secretary for Military Equality Alliance.

Dr. Aaron Belkin, professor at University of California, Santa Barbara and founder of the CSSMM.

Khari Polk, graduate student at NYU.

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