US military now free to Ask and Tell

By Rebecca Davis 21 September 2011

As of 00.01 on the morning of 20 September, gays are officially welcome in the US military. Tuesday saw the official revoking of Defence Directive 1332.14 – better known as the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy. By REBECCA DAVIS.

We may look back now and see the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy as outrageously homophobic, but it’s easy to forget what preceded it. The first American soldier to be discharged from the military for homosexual activities was Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin in 1778. By 1947 the anti-gay policy had formalised into a system whereby a service member found to be gay, but not engaging in homosexual activity was given an “undesirable” discharge, while those found guilty of participating in homosexual conduct were given a “dishonourable” discharge. In 1982 the department of defence issued its definitive policy that homosexuality was “incompatible” with military service. This stood until Bill Clinton took it on in the early 1990s.

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was thus actually introduced as a compromise policy in 1993. In the one corner you had good old liberal Bill Clinton insisting that anyone should be allowed to serve in the military, regardless of sexual orientation. In the other corner, you had the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of Congress and the public arguing that there was no place for gays in the military.

They settled on DADT as the best possible solution. Here’s a trivia fact for you: in reality, the full name of the policy was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass”. “Don’t Ask” meant military officials could not demand to know the sexual orientation of recruits. “Don’t Tell” mandated that service members would be discharged for stating that they were homosexual. “Don’t Pursue” laid down the conditions under which an investigation could be undertaken. The “Don’t Harass” component is self-explanatory (although in practice there have been a number of shocking assaults on gay service-members).

DADT  was challenged through the legal system throughout the 90s and 2000s, but surprisingly it was the Republicans who provided the necessary impetus to bin it: a 2004 lawsuit by the Log Cabin Republicans (the USA’s largest gay Republican association) was largely responsible for overturning it. As a result of the federal lawsuit, supported by statements from Obama that the ban on gays “weakens our national security”, DADT was ruled unconstitutional in October last year.

Nobody was quite sure how many members of the military would come out on Tuesday, or how conservative older service members would deal with the change of institutional climate. Gay rights groups were planning parties around the US, though, and Tuesday also saw the launch of the first widespread distribution of a magazine by and for gay service-members, OutServe.

However, the fight for the protection of gay rights in the US military isn’t all over. For a start there is no specific anti-discrimination measures to protect now openly gay service members from discrimination (for instance, being passed by for promotion). And gay service members who are legally married will find that their spouses do not receive recognition by the military, and are hence not eligible for military health insurance or social services.

Activists will no doubt be turning their attention to these issues speedily. On Tuesday, however, the focus was on celebration – and a lot of telling. DM

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