Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: An Expensive Closet
It costs the American people an estimated $36 million a year, embarrasses a quarter of the American population, is rarely enforced, and has virtually no effect on new recruits’ decision to enlist, according to available data. So, why is the military’s anti-gay policy still in place?
“Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass,” 10 U.S.C. 654, is the American government’s policy regarding homosexuality in the military. It prohibits non-heterosexual men and women from openly serving.
The official reason for the policy is written into the law. It states the military must exclude people whose “…presence in the armed forces would create an unacceptable risk to the armed forces’ high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” According to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the above description includes homosexuals and bisexuals.
“The law was intended to protect cohesion,” according to Nathaniel Frank, senior research fellow at the University of California’s Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military.
Frank says one theory is that people with power when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was enacted were trying to register their moral disapproval of homosexuality.
Another theory, he says, is the political theory that people to whom Congress was catering had a social concern. “The military debate was hijacked by social conservatives to assert their narrow expression of what American values should be. Much of their reasoning is religious.”
Frank said that a third, often less publicized, possibility for an anti-gay military is that the military is a “homoerotic environment.” There is a constant fear that close connections of soldiers will be considered gay. Because men and women work in such close quarters in the military and are together so often, those people who remain in the military must not be gay. Franks also said that if nobody asks and nobody tells, it is presumed that everyone in the military is heterosexual and, thus, the homo-erotica of the military is non-existent.
Michael Grimes, Ph.D., who studies social inequalities, including sexual orientation, at Louisiana State University, says the “conservative right, both the religious right and the socially conservative right, has the ear of politicians.”
He points out that if the religious influence on politics were not as strong as it is there probably would not be as much resistance to gays. “Being gay has become a much more socially accepted status in our society,” he says. “In twenty-first century America, being gay is much different than in 1950s America.”
Grimes attributes much of the negative stigma toward gays to the Baby Boomers, who grew up with negative gay stereotypes and who currently hold positions of power in the government and military. Older people, he notes, probably see having gays working side by side in the military with heterosexuals as much more threatening, much more dangerous.
Grimes also said the entire idea behind Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is that not knowing would be better than knowing your fellow soldier’s sexuality. Grimes is not convinced. “I’m not so sure that knowing someone’s sexual orientation would be as disruptive to moral[s], to the esprit de corps of the military, and to whether you lay down your life for your fellow soldiers, as conservatives would have us believe.”
No one person knows whether Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has helped the armed forces in any way, but recent reports show the policy is costing taxpayers millions of dollars and causing the military to lose specialists.
In 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released official data regarding the costs of implementing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. According to a University of California analysis of the GAO data, the policy cost taxpayers at least $364 million, about twice what the government had estimated. It was found that the military was paying to recruit soldiers, many of whom must replace the more than 9,000 soldiers dismissed because they acknowledged being gay.
Between 1994 and 2003, the Pentagon dismissed more than 200 medical specialists, including doctors, nurses and lab technicians, for being gay, even though the Boston Globe showed that the military is short on medical personnel in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to the loss of medical personnel, the armed forces also fired more than 50 linguists who specialize in the Arabic language, which is predominating in Iraq and much of the Middle East and who are in short supply.
Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, who was dismissed for being openly gay, said that gay soldiers who must remain in the closet under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy are being forced to live a lie, a situation she believes undermines unit cohesion.
Regarding troops’ fear of coming out, Cammermeyer says, “Having to choose between job and family is unconscionable. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, good troops, wanting to remain in the military, leave or do not re-up because the cost is too great.”
One hundred sixteen members of Congress support the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which specifically strikes down the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in favor of having no policy against gays in the military.
“This policy has proven unpopular and costly, and there seems to be little convincing evidenced for it to remain in effect,” according to a Boston Globe op-ed article by Rep. Martin Meehan. A survey by the Boston Globe showed that 79 percent of people favor allowing gays to serve; this number is strikingly different from the 40 percent who favored gay service members in 1993, a year before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was enacted.
Even a majority of potential military recruits feel that homosexuality is a non-issue for the armed forces. According to a poll conducted by the University of California, 76 percent of potential military recruits said that lifting the ban on openly gay service members would not affect their decision to enlist; 21 percent of those people surveyed feel that a ban would decrease their chances of enlisting, and 2 percent would be more likely to enlist if the anti-gay policies were lifted.
Another poll conducted by the University of California shows that 24 percent of people are embarrassed by the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy; 17 percent were proud of the policy; and the rest said that the policy did not affect their opinion of the military.
Since 2001, American soldiers have been fighting the global War on Terrorism alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Reality of course is that there are estimated 65,000 homosexual service members in the American military today,” according to Cammermeyer. “Additionally, virtually all the NATO nations have included gays in their military and they work hand in hand with American troops without difficulty.”
Cammermeyer speculated that if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell were revoked, gays in the military would not be any more open about their sexuality than they already are, because service members are fully aware of negative stigma that exists toward gays.
Grimes argues that close contact with open homosexuals will help lessen negative views of gays in most cases, except cases regarding people who have strong negative views of homosexuals. “Getting to know a member of society who practices a deviant behavior has the potential for lessening or countering the negative stereotype of the group to which that person belongs.”
Says Cammermeyer; “Bias prevails as long as silence remains, but self preservation is also part of the equation.” She believes that, even if anti-gay policies were lifted, homosexuals would remain cautious about coming out of the closet.
Minimally edited from an op-ed published as “Pride or Prejudice” in the October 23, 2006, issue of Students for Reform, a now-defunct newspaper at Louisiana State University.
Editorial note: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011.
Image courtesy of Tony Fischer, via Flickr.