Remember “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—the federal policy that prohibited openly gay, lesbian or bisexual citizens from serving in the United States military from December 21, 1993 to September 20, 2011? Thanks to the media, many of us are familiar with the phrase “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but few know of its once extended title: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass.” And even less are familiar with the legislative history that influenced the inception of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or DADT during Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1993.
A Very Short Overview of the Legislative History.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans were legally restricted from military service as early as 1916 in the Articles of War, with strong enforcement from 1939 to 1945 during World War II. Why? The federal government assumed that a) lesbian women and gay men would breach national security, and b) their sexual preference distracted from optimal job performance. In essence, the government questioned lesbian and gay folks’ ability to defend while gay.
The 1950s significantly influenced much of the propaganda around sexual orientation, the military, and federal policy. During this period, the government believed that foreign spies viewed gay Americans as potential targets—making them “vulnerable to interrogation by a skilled questioner due to their emotional instability and moral weakness.” The military restricted job advancement by refusing lesbian and gay employees’ security clearances. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450: Security Requirements for Government Employment to ban the employment of lesbian women and gay men. The order cited homosexuality as a sexual perversion and a plausible condition for firing federal employees. Any perceived or actual gay military staff were denied security clearances until the late 1980s.
In 1982, the Department of Defense enacted DOD Directive 1332.14 to ban homosexual conduct and discharge those engaging in homosexual acts or disclosure. Following years of controversy and the physical assault and murder of service people, Congress and military leaders sought a measure that would uphold the tenets of the DOD Directive 1332.14 while protecting military personnel. The result was the passing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December 1993.
For 18 years, DADT intended to curb gay jokes, name calling, unduly scrutiny of work performance and ethics, undesirable duties, death threats, physical assaults, beatings, murders, and any form of discrimination or harassment. However, harassment continued and the discharge of lesbian and gay military workers soared between 1993 and 2001. It is important to note that many of these discharges were a consequence of women and men “outing” themselves, even though DADT strictly prohibited disclosure. Because of homophobia and sexism within the DADT policy, women were three times more likely to be investigated and discharged for being gay, and for women in the Marine Corps, six times more likely to be scrutinized. The act of “lesbian baiting” or sexual harassment has been cited as a leading contributor to the disproportionate percentage of female discharges. Evidence shows that women and young adults, in particular, were heavily impacted by the policy. According to the American Psychological Association, 30% of women have been discharged despite making up a very small percentage of military staff, and 83% of dismissed women were between 18 to 25 years of age.
Although we celebrate the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” we must not overlook the influence it had on the lives of women, men, their families, and friends. The remainder of this piece focuses on three servicewomen and their experiences and opinions.
The reason I decided to join the military in October 2006 is simply this: I saw no other alternative for my life. Things were spinning out of control and I believed that the service was the answer for me. I am currently in the Army Reserve and stationed in Cary, North Carolina. I was familiar with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy before entering the service, but that didn’t deter my decision because I needed the military at that point in my life.
I have been harassed because of my sexual orientation and gender expression. Specialists and majors and everyone in between have told me that I wanted to be a man because of the way I dress and carry myself. I’ve been mistaken for male on many occasions and endured unwelcome sexual advances to “change my mind,” mostly from males just one rank above me. I am currently a specialist so you can kind of guess what I go through on an almost daily basis. What sucks is that I can’t really retaliate against all of the remarks. Some people, namely females, say that I leave myself open for all of the ridicule that I receive. They say that if I just play by the rules I’ll be okay and that I need to carry myself more like a woman. I don’t think these people would call what happens to me harassment, but it hurts nonetheless.
As soon as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, the Army gave us a briefing to explain what the repeal actually meant. They talked about how the military would perceive gay relationships and how some regulations related to the subject. Despite this, I won’t disclose my sexuality but I don’t hide it either. The military still has a good ole boys club that perpetuates the idea that everyone should be straight and God-fearing. There are those who have and still believe that my presence in the Armed Forces will create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order, discipline, and unit cohesion. Because of this risk, I have had to act straight just to get by—even though you can plainly see that I am lesbian.
The only real change is that I can’t be kicked out of the military for being gay any longer. I still feel like I have to be discreet about who I am. I do not feel safer now that the policy is gone. There are still people who don’t want openly gay individuals in military, and these people are very dangerous.
I met Sarah while in the service, so our relationship started out in secret. We knew from the beginning that we were going to face obstacles. We had a lot of ups and downs because we were closeted for the majority of our relationship. Even when I left the National Guard after six years of service, it was still a constant struggle. Since the ending of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” nothing has really changed for us. There is no sort of acknowledgment of our relationship. We waited for the day that a change would come, but it’s a hollow victory. We still have to be straight in the eyes of the military.
Before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” gays in the military had to be a special type of person. It takes a person with high moral standards to even think about serving and fighting for a country that doesn’t allow basic and deserved human rights. ~SARAH
My first experience with a woman wasn’t until age 18 while stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. So when I first entered the Army in 1996, I didn’t have anything to tell. Even so, when I initiated this relationship, I was open about it. My platoon sergeant tried to harass me a bit, but I stood my ground. After all, what could she do? She was in a relationship with a fellow female soldier too. And when I was alone in the presence of some sergeants, they would come on to me. I learned it was a whole ‘nother world in the Army.
It wasn’t until the ‘70s that women were allowed to serve active duty. So in my opinion, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was created to mostly protect male soldiers and to keep them from being openly gay in the military. A lot of males view gay men as feminine or weak and men tend to be defensive around openly gay men. So in order to maintain a masculine military—and for male soldiers to feel their lives weren’t at risk due to gay soldiers—we all had to closet ourselves.
Some women and men were discharged because they outed themselves, and young adults were really impacted. I believe one reason these women outed themselves is because training became overwhelming. It was physically intense. And if you were young, trying to deal with your sexuality in a world that said you were wrong for being lesbian, and dealing with a relationship where your woman was also sleeping with a male soldier, and you didn’t have any guidance, you were sure to stir up some drama and get dismissed.
I served for three years before being discharged due to a knee injury. Although I’m not in the service anymore, I can see women experiencing more hassle post DADT. For example, an openly gay woman may experience harassment from a man simply because he can’t have her. And an openly gay man may not garner much respect from men who feel they’re less safe simply because of his same-sex preference.
I enjoyed my time in the army. In fact, I still keep in touch with women I was stationed with. Even though I had a lot fun, I recognize that a woman’s experience is based on her individual situation. It all depends on your superiors, where you’re stationed, your unit, [and] etcetera. •