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."
In Josh Seefried’s book, Our Time: Breaking the Silence of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," Navy Lieutenant Jamar Green writes, "I realized that despite my love for America and my willingness to die for her, she did not recognize or protect my sovereignty as she did her heterosexual sons and daughters. DADT forced me to deny who I was; it forbade me to exist while craftily denying me any sliver of defense against antigay harassment."
Under DADT, 13,368 military personnel were discharged from the armed forces between 1993 and 2010, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), costing taxpayers $383 million -- losing a high level commander in the Air Force costs millions of dollars worth of military training.
But the fight was on. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a watchdog organization, was launched in 1993 and provided nonprofit legal aid to over 10,000 fighting DADT. OutServe, a secret Facebook group that became a larger organization, enabled a new level of community support and allowed gays in the military to realize just how populous they were.
A number of forces came into play in 2010, which would eventually lead to the tipping point. Organized lobbies, assembled by gay activists, enabled homosexuals to have a real political voice ($$$) to court politicians.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered their support for lifting the ban in 2010, but Senator John McCain battled hard against them. Things looked grim when Republicans swept the mid-term elections. But this July, a ruling from a federal appeals court found the U.S. military ban to be unconstitutional -- a certification that enabled President Obama to officially end DADT.
To get a soldier's-eye view, I talked with Dr. Kalev Sepp, a former Green Beret and Special Forces Officer who served in the Pentagon as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations Capabilities until 2009; he is now a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
Sepp recalled meeting his first gay soldier in 1981, while serving as Captain of Artillery for a combat unit in Korea. The soldier, a communications expert, had been sent to Sepp on a rehabilitative assignment: Disciplinary action had been taken against him because he had been named as being part of a "homosexual ring."
"When he showed up at my desk, he was under a cloud," says Sepp. "I told him what I'd tell any soldier: I measure you on how well you obey as a soldier. The only standard is how well you do your job."
Homosexuality, says Sepp, was not an issue he had seen cause problems in a unit -- unlike racism and drugs. "If some guy was worried about being looked at by a gay guy in the shower -- my impression was of someone who was insecure in his own sexuality."
The gay soldier successfully completed his time in Sepp’s unit without incident.
"But before he left, he came to my office and gave me an envelope. He said, 'Sir, I want to thank you for giving me a second chance.' He had bought me a steak dinner at the NCO club! It was the only thing he ever did that made me aware the guy was gay. Only a gay guy would do something that thoughtful."