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Gohn: ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ what they were thinking

The battle to abolish “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — the policy against allowing openly gay people to serve in the military — is picking up steam. Consider this Round 2 of a larger fight; Round 1 ended when DADT passed in 1993. But it is the same fight: to get gays and lesbians accepted in the services. Which makes it worthwhile for today’s “DADT-abolitionists” to ponder the question: What were they thinking in Round 1? What did both sides say back then?

The most obvious thing they were thinking was that they had to compromise. President Bill Clinton had made a campaign promise to abolish the then-existing policy excluding from the military all homosexuals, closeted or out, active or gay only in their own minds. But he found that the military was trying to keep the policy intact.

Abolitionists and defenders of the status quo fought to a draw: a policy modification that theoretically allowed gays and lesbians to keep their orientation and sex practices private. In exchange for staying closeted, they could stay in uniform. It seems clear that this compromise has failed; people keep getting dragged out of the mandated closet, and the inhabitants of the closet are growing restless.

In short, the fight was not then, and surely is not now, over degrees of outness, but over homosexuality itself. So again: what were the prohibitionists’ concerns?

One thread running through congressional testimony was that some people are just uncomfortable being around gay people or object morally to homosexual acts.

Then-Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana typified the approach: “Many people who serve in the military today share a viewpoint that allowing homosexuals to serve in the military goes against their religious beliefs or moral convictions… .” He feared that some who felt that way might not enlist or stay enlisted. In other words, it’s not that we’re necessarily discriminatory ourselves, just that we want to retain the discriminatory people we recruit. The interesting thing, though, is that of the 13 servicemen summoned to oppose allowing “out” servicemen to serve, only one said he would actually quit if this happened. Others who adverted to the issue merely expressed the sense that other service people would be hostile and/or quit.

A variation was: Even if we don’t discriminate, the discriminatory people already there would make life too hard for the gays, and we’d be distracted from the military mission by the imperative to protect the sexual minority. As Adm. Thomas Moorer told Congress, young sailors “will spot a homosexual a mile away as soon as he comes in, and they’ll have to name him Tessie, or Agnes, or whatever.” A Marine sergeant worried that if he had to protect gay marines who reported to him, the straight ones would start questioning his own sexuality.

Given changing times, the “Tessie or Agnes” scenario might not happen much today. But even if it were likely, it shouldn’t drive public policy. One person’s rights or privileges under the law should not be cut off merely because of other people’s discomfort, disapproval or derision. The Supreme Court rightly rejected this justification in 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas as it related to criminalizing homosexual behavior. We can sympathize with those whom gays make uncomfortable (their loss, after all); we cannot make that discomfort the basis of a policy that disqualifies gays from the privilege of serving.

The military rejected a similar line when the armed forces desegregated in 1948. The inevitable reminders of this precedent in 1993 were met with the argument that race is inherent while sexual orientation is a matter of choice. I’d question both propositions, but even if they were right, so what? Discrimination is discrimination. Would it be any more appropriate to reject a soldier because of her legitimate choices than because of what she cannot control?

Good order and discipline

Sen. Coats also gave voice to another main argument: that when people have to sleep around each other and get naked around each other, which happens in military environments, sexual attraction may result. That sounds reasonable. But then there is a leap to the proposition that this is destructive of good order and discipline. A similar jump is also found in the “findings” portion of the DADT statute. There is something missing in the middle there: the part that explains why sexual interest by gay or lesbian service members destroys that good order and discipline. How exactly does that destruction work?

I could not find anyone coming out and saying it, but the missing piece has to be the fear that gay service people will sometimes act on that sexual attraction: that they will leer or proposition or rape, in other words. And we can agree, without getting down to specifics, that these behaviors, if they happened, might be deleterious to good order and discipline. Go to any athletic club, though, and watch all the straight guys and gay guys changing clothes and showering together. See much leering? Or discomfort? I thought not.

Anyway, with gender integration, nudity aside, the services already have all the issues with sexual attraction. We know, from recent pregnancy statistics, that heterosexual interest among service members is often reciprocated — and from military rape statistics that it is often acted on when it isn’t reciprocated. There is already a lot of welcome and unwelcome sexual attraction among service members. Good order and discipline suffers from both, no doubt, but the remedy is to make and enforce rules about how to deal with sexual attraction, not to kick women (or men) out of the military.

Adding gays and lesbians to the mix (to the extent they’re not already there) looks like changing some of the dancing partners but not the dance. Perhaps, if we could live in that mythical time when combat units consisted exclusively of heterosexual males, we could eliminate these issues. Female service members are here to stay, however, and universal heterosexuality was doubtless a myth anyway.

Rear Adm. Robert Spiro told a lurid tale of a ship during World War II where some gay sailors made unwelcome advances to straight sailors. His point was the disruptiveness of these gays. But his story revealed what statistics would have led one to predict: gays were there then. And indeed, most witnesses at all the hearings acknowledged that there were plenty of closeted gays and lesbians in the military, many serving with distinction.

The prohibitionists’ unstated nightmare scenario was exemplified in Spiro’s story: gay men propositioning straight men. Exactly why this prospect excited such distress (a serviceman could simply say no, just as he could to a woman) is hard to comprehend, but obviously it loomed large in the prohibitionists’ fears.

Because we have never tried a military where uncloseted gays and lesbians could freely serve, we can’t be certain there wouldn’t be more unwelcome sexual advances. But the experience of the many, many countries where gays serve openly is that there is not much to fear. The key to success in a military where two sexes and multiple orientations exist is a good sexual harassment policy, well enforced.

As this record shows, the prohibitionists were not benighted fools. They were just, with all due and sincere respect, wrong. And they still are.