Active Duty


By Cintra Wilson

Reviewing the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Illustration by Gracia Lam

It wasn’t all bad in 2011: The compromise made by President Bill Clinton two decades ago that resulted in the ignominious "don't ask, don't tell" law died an overdue death at midnight on September 20.

Despite the fact that homosexuals have been serving in militaries as long as there have been militaries—the Spartans and Alexander the Great were no simpering Nancies when it came to ass-kicking--the American military has shown remarkable resistance to relinquishing a doctrinal attitude of rigid homophobia to rival that of the Vatican or the fifth-grade locker room.

The Strange History of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a new documentary by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, begins the tale of DADT in 1942, when the military decided (based on the then-prevailing medical delusion that homosexuality was a psychiatric condition) that banning gays from the armed services would save them money in future psychiatric costs. After WWII, the military used homosexuality as a convenient pretext to downsize—gay servicemembers were dismissed en masse; those who escaped detection went deeper into the duffel bag and lead double-lives, concealing the truth about themselves even from the "brothers" in their own combat units.

In 1992, Bill Clinton was gung-ho to repeal the ban -- but the Pentagon (who loathed Clinton for slowing the gush of blank checks they enjoyed during the Reagan administration) went medieval on his ass with an organized tantrum of partisan political theater. The Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Phil Gramm, and other conservatives, acting in lockstep with the Christian right, weren't able to find scientific support for continuing the ban so they concocted fishy talking points that would dominate the conversation for nearly two decades: homosexuals serving openly in the military, they argued, would pose an "unacceptable risk to morale," and undermine or threaten the "cohesion," "integrity," and "well-being of the unit."

Instead of being an effective compromise paving the way to repeal, the DADT hearings ended up crystallizing the military's stance as explicitly homophobic. The vague policy that had begun in 1942 as a cost-cutting measure was now legitimized institutional discrimination.

There were witch-hunts. Gay enlistees were openly persecuted, abused, and harassed. While DADT disallowed superior officers from directly asking a soldier his sexual orientation, they were allowed to investigate individuals if "credible evidence" was given that they were engaging in homosexual behavior -- and almost anything was considered "credible evidence." (An interviewee in Strange History recalls one serviceman discharged after being proven gay on the basis that he had attended the Dinah Shore Golf Classic.) Many outstanding soldiers were forced to resign from their careers "for the good of the service."

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