Don’t Ask, Just End It

“I think we have all expected this would come in time. My sense is that it isn’t a big deal among the other majors I am serving with, and even less so among junior soldiers. We have become accustomed to the idea that gays have served honorably alongside us for some time.” — Maj. Niel Smith, Iraq War veteran who is a student at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., quoted in the Washington Post.

It should not be a big deal, but gays and lesbians in the military remain stuck in the closet.

About 65,000 gays, lesbians and bisexuals are serving in the military, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which amounts to about 2% of the 3 million men and women on active duty.

But because of federal legislation — “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — drafted during the Clinton administration in response to the last attempt to rip the door from the closet, thousands have been drummed from the military over the last 16 years.

The DADT legislation grew out of an attempt by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to end the ban on gays serving in the military. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by then-Chairman Colin Powell, balked and the Clinton administration agreed to a compromise that prevented the military from asking about sexual orientation and allowed gays to serve — provided their homosexuality did not become known.

The compromise, of course, was a hypocritical sham. The military may have stopped asking recruits and service members about their sexual orientation, but it has never stopped rooting gays, lesbians and bisexuals from its ranks.

More than 13,500 openly gays, lesbians and bisexuals have been discharged since 1993, according ot the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, and “American taxpayers have paid between $250 million and $1.2 billion to investigate, eliminate and replace qualified, patriotic service members who want to serve their country but can’t because expressing their sexual orientation violates DADT,” Human Rights Campaign reports.

DADT is part of a larger legal framework that treats gays, lesbians and bisexuals as societal misfits, that deprives them of their full citizenship in the United States. State and federal laws on marriage combine to deny rights and limit access to an array of benefits to same-sex couples. Sodomy laws, which criminalize sexual relations among same-sex couples, remain on the books in many states and municipalities. And gays, lesbians and bisexuals remain one of the few classes of people whose rights remain at the mercy of voters.

Enter the Obama administration. During his State of the Union in January, President Barack Obama called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a law “that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are” and he signaled his commitment to end the practice.

Less than a week later, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated the administration’s commitment, telling Congress that the military was committed to the repeal.

“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee (according to the New York Times).

“(A)llowing gays and lesbians to serve openly,” he added, “would be the right thing to do.”

There is a caveat. The repeal is going to be phased in over a number of years — to give the military time to address some of what it considers to be sticky issues, including benefits, housing, fraternization rules and the impact that variations in state law on same-sex couples might have on the military. It also plans to look at “the potential effect on unit cohesion, recruiting and retention.”

The idea is to ease the path, to ensure that service members are ready for the change - which leaves gays, lesbians and bisexuals at the mercy of others.

Clifford Alexander Jr., Army secretary under President Jimmy Carter, told the Washington Post that the president should limit that “any study take no more than a month,” and that the decisions on implementation of new policies “should be made by civilians.”

“It’s not appropriate ... to wait for a group of people in uniform to say, ‘Okay, now it’s time,’ “ he said. “Get it done.”

Alexander is right — and his comments underscore the dangers of leaving the military to its own timetable on the issue. DADT was the product of a military environment that has been hostile to the LGBT community and its continued existence is the product of a continued hostility. Polling of service members indicates that a majority probably aren’t ready for the change. White soldiers and sailors were no more ready 60 years ago for integration.

Change should not have to wait for them to be ready. It is, as Mullen says, the right thing — the only thing — to do.

But change won’t come unless we — the LGBT community and its allies — maintain pressure on the military and the federal government. Without that pressure and agitation, the military could get bogged down in study after study, leading to an indefinite delay. That would be fine for conservatives, who no doubt are hoping that an eventual change in presidential administrations could quash the effort, which is what happened in New Jersey with same-sex marriage.

The focus on military is unfortunate, but is important historically. Integrating the armed services in the late-1940s and early-1950s helped move the larger desegregation movement forward, the military acting as an endorser of equal rights and citizenship for African-Americans making it easier for other American institutions to do so.

Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” could have the same effect, which will help break down the barriers that leave gays, lesbians and bisexuals living with a “separate-but-equal” status.

Hank Kalet is a poet, blogger and newspaper editor in central New Jersey. Email; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2010

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