III. The Military’s Regulation of Sexuality
IV. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
V. Arguments for Upholding the Ban
VI. Arguments for Allowing Lesbians and Gays to Serve Openly
From the time of the Revolutionary War to the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” evidence of homosexuality has been grounds for exclusion or discharge from the U.S. military. The continued presence of lesbians and gays in the military has prompted heated debate over military necessity, personal rights, and the culture of the armed forces. The outcome of this controversy will likely affect other contemporary conflicts between lesbian and gay rights movements and traditional values.
In June 2006, the Department of Defense found itself back in the middle of the controversy over gays and lesbians in the military. Researchers from the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military had recently uncovered an official Pentagon document that classified homosexuality as a mental illness. Members of Congress and medical experts were quick to criticize the document, pointing out that the American Psychiatric Association had stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. This debate triggered a much larger dispute over how gay and lesbian service members should be classified by the military. Since the Department of Defense declared that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” in 1982, gays and service members have become a topic of heated debate. Should sexual identity be a standard for inclusion or exclusion from the U.S. military? Does sexual identity have any impact on military performance? Should gay and lesbian individuals be allowed to enlist and serve as long as they do not reveal their sexual orientation? Should they be able to serve openly? What consequences do these military regulations have for the broader social debate over lesbian and gay rights in the United States? Politicians, military leaders, legislators, judges, activists, and service members have all struggled with these questions.
The introduction of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass” in 1993 addressed some of these concerns, but not all. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, as the policy came to be known, officially prohibits the military from asking recruits or current service members about their sexual orientation. Supporters of this policy argue that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be bad for troop morale and damaging to unit cohesion, which could significantly diminish military performance and put other soldiers at risk. They also point out that the military operates under its own rules and regulations, making it immune to state and federal antidiscrimination laws. Opponents of this policy argue that the military’s current bias against lesbians and gays is equivalent to its previous opposition to racial integration. They contend that the stigmatization and harassment of gay and lesbian service members are violations of basic rights, and they view the numerous military investigations into the sexual lives of service members as governmental interference into private life. Finally, they argue that any benefits generated by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are outweighed by the high costs of investigations and discharge proceedings.
The Military’s Regulation of Sexuality
U.S. military regulation of sexuality goes back as far as the Revolutionary War, when Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin became the first American soldier to be dismissed for homosexual conduct. In March 1778, Enslin was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged from the Continental Army for his actions. Contemporary conversations about gays and lesbians in the military often reference this incident, but it is important to note that Lieutenant Enslin’s removal from the army was not based on his sexual orientation. He was removed for engaging in sexual acts that were prohibited by military law. Until World War II, the military had no specific laws or policies regarding homosexuals. The Articles of War of 1920 classified sodomy as a punishable offense, but were applicable to both straight and gay service members (Burrelli 1994).
The lack of specific regulations did not prevent the U.S. military from policing sexual conduct. The Newport Sex Scandal of 1919–1921 was one of the military’s first systematic attempts to purge gay service members from the ranks. Afraid that sailors stationed at the Navy base in Newport, Rhode Island, were in danger of being morally corrupted by the local gay community, the Navy set out to investigate. It recruited several enlisted sailors to entrap and then testify against suspected “perverts” in court (Brenkert 2003). During the course of this investigation, a number of sailors were caught, court-martialed, and sent to prison. Prominent civilians, such as the Reverend Samuel Neal Kent, were also caught up in the dragnet, bringing the investigation—and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt—to national attention. Significantly, the scandal did not result from the Navy’s findings but rather from the graphic accounts given by the young sailors who had volunteered for the investigation.
Lesbians and gays were not officially excluded from military service until World War II, when the introduction of standardized psychological screening shifted the military’s focus from homosexual conduct to homosexual status. In 1942, the army revised its draft regulations to include criteria for differentiating between homosexual and “normal” draftees and added procedures for rejecting those who were not deemed normal by the screening protocol. Women who wished to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) were screened using the same criteria, although homosexuality did not become an official reason for disqualification until most of the WAC recruiting had been completed (Berube 1990). During this time, the high demand for service members meant that many of the regulations were loosened or ignored to allow gays and lesbians to enlist and serve. After the war was over, however, Congress enacted the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which standardized the military’s restrictive approach to homosexuality across all branches of the armed services.
As the lesbian and gay rights movement emerged in the United States in the 1970s, military policy on homosexuality became the subject of both protest and legal challenge. Although this movement was unsuccessful in overturning the ban against gays and lesbians serving in the military, it did uncover enough inconsistencies in enforcement to prompt the military to review and revise its regulations in the early 1980s. The new policy sought to establish more uniform procedures for discharging lesbian and gay service members and to identify the extenuating circumstances under which those who had engaged in homosexual conduct might be retained. But the basic approach to lesbians and gays in the military remained—the first sentence of Department of Defense Directive 1332.14 reads: “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.”
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
The development and enactment of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the early 1990s remains one of the most significant—and most contested—revisions of military policy on homosexuality. In 1993, shortly after taking office, President Bill Clinton announced that he planned to fulfill his campaign promise by lifting the ban on lesbians and gays in the military. He gave Secretary of Defense Les Aspin six months to draft a new policy that would end discrimination based on sexual orientation in the U.S. military. While waiting for this policy, President Clinton ordered the Department of Defense to stop asking military recruits about their sexual orientation and asked that those who were being discharged under the current policy be placed on standby.
Clinton’s proposals were strongly opposed by the joint chiefs of staff , high-ranking Pentagon officials, Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) chair Sam Nunn (D-GA), and many conservative members of Congress. While Secretary of Defense Aspin commissioned studies on the current policy, both the SASC and the House Armed Services Committee held numerous hearings on the topic, during which Pentagon officials, military commanders, service members, and various experts testified on the potential impact of allowing lesbians and gays to serve openly in the U.S. military. The majority of the testimony offered was in opposition to lifting the ban (Herek 1996).
The final outcome of this controversy was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass,” a title that reflects the compromise reached in the new policy. Before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, military officials were permitted to ask potential recruits or current service members about their sexual orientation to prevent the enlistment or initiate the removal of gays and lesbians from the military. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell prohibits military officials from asking direct questions about sexual orientation, but it also prevents gays and lesbians wishing to enlist and serve from saying or doing anything that would reveal their sexual orientation to others. They are also prohibited from engaging in any type of homosexual conduct, whether on duty or off duty. Also, if a commander believes that a service member has demonstrated a propensity for homosexual conduct, discharge proceedings can be initiated (Halley 1999). That lesbians and gays are now allowed to serve as long as they don’t serve openly has done little to dampen the debate over gays and lesbians in the armed forces.
Arguments for Upholding the Ban
Individuals and organizations opposed to lesbians and gays serving openly in the U.S. military offer various arguments in support of their position. Moral values certainly play a role in this debate, but the most common arguments involve issues of military necessity and key distinctions between military and civilian law. During the congressional hearings held in 1993, for instance, Pentagon officials testified that gays and lesbians must be banned from military service to maintain necessary levels of troop morale, unit cohesion, and discipline.
These arguments have less to do with the actual performance in the military and more to do with the responses of heterosexual service members to lesbians and gays in their own units (Halley 1999). During basic training and deployment, military personnel live in close proximity to one another. Service members also have little to no privacy when they dress or shower. Proponents of banning lesbians and gays from military service argue that allowing homosexuals to train and reside with heterosexuals would be like giving men service members the opportunity to observe women service members in various states of undress. Service members would feel awkward or uncomfortable and troop morale would decrease significantly.
Openly gay or lesbian service members are also viewed as a threat to unit cohesion. Unit cohesion is generally defined as the fostering of mutual trust and commitment to one’s fellow soldiers and is necessary for both overcoming hardship and achieving military objectives. Proponents of the ban contend that, even if military officers are instructed to exhibit tolerance, the homophobic culture of the military will lead to tension and additional violence between gay and straight service members (Herek 1996). They also argue that the inclusion of lesbians and gays in sex-segregated units will increase the possibility of sexual harassment and precipitate breakdowns in the chain of command.
Finally, those who support the military’s right to exclude or discharge service members based on sexual orientation point out that the military acts under its own laws, rules, and regulations; that service members are faced with a number of restrictions on their personal behavior that would not be acceptable for civilians; and that the U.S. military is immune to both federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination (Ray 1993). Important distinctions between civilian and military law help to account for the failure of numerous legal challenges to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Arguments for Allowing Lesbians and Gays to Serve Openly
Because they are arguing against the status quo, gay-rights advocates and others who favor overturning the current ban have to both refute the arguments of their opponents and offer their own arguments for allowing lesbians and gays to serve openly in the military. They have uncovered studies commissioned by the Department of Defense and conducted independent research to dispute the claim that lesbian and gay service members are bad for troop morale or disruptive to unit cohesion. According to these advocates, recent surveys of enlisted military personnel show a marked increase in the number of service members who say they would be comfortable serving alongside lesbian and gay service members (Kuhr 2007).
From the perspective of advocates on this side of the debate, the military ban is symbolic of a more general refusal to grant full citizenship rights to lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Like the right to vote or the right to enter into legal contracts, military service is a key marker of citizenship in the United States (Belkin and Bateman 2003). The controversy that surrounded the integration of African Americans into the U.S. armed forces in 1948 contained the same tension between military inclusion and social progress. Opponents of the ban point out that the military advanced similar arguments in this debate, stating that the integration of racial minorities would jeopardize military performance by dampening morale and damaging unit cohesion. Pursuing this analogy, they contend that the general success of racial integration in the U.S. military—and the number of foreign militaries who now allow lesbians and gay men to serve openly— suggests that overturning the ban would not adversely affect military performance.
Moving from principles to procedural issues, opponents of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell argue that the policy costs too much and that the money and time it takes to investigate and discharge could be better spent elsewhere. According to a California blue ribbon commission report released in 2006, the policy cost U.S. taxpayers $364 million and resulted in the loss of almost 10,000 service members in its first decade (White 2006).
Nearly 30 years since the U.S. military said that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service,” the country finds itself facing a combination of historical and cultural factors that are likely to have a significant impact on the debate over gays and lesbians in the military. In the face of an extended war in Afghanistan (and following an extended war in Iraq), the military has been forced to step up recruiting efforts and prolong tours of duty, but a troop shortage remains. It is clear that the discharge or exclusion of particular service members has come into conflict with military necessity.
At the same time, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been denounced by dozens of former senior military officers and service members. John Shalikashvili, an army general who was head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the Pentagon adopted the policy, changed his mind and came out against it in early 2007. In 2005, Representative Martin Meehan (D-MA) introduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would allow lesbians and gays to serve openly in the military. The bill had 122 cosponsors but failed to pass the Republican-controlled House. It was reintroduced in 2007 and in 2009 (the latter time by Representative Patrick Murphy), gaining momentum this last time under backing from the White House under President Barack Obama. Senate leaders, too, announced that they would join the effort to overturn the ban, although an attempt to include a repeal measure in the 2011 defense appropriations bill failed owing to Republican opposition. Even in the event of passage in the near future, however, it would be up to top military leaders to implement any new policy according to military rules and regulations.
Carrie Anne Platt
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