We Don't Need "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Policy

28 January 2000

By Stentor Danielson

As the Presidential primaries get under way, the candidates are all clamoring to show us what a difference electing them would make. Tax cuts, abortion and health care have dominated campaign headlines. But along the way, the candidates have also found time to give us their thoughts on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the military.

As expected, the three most conservative Republicans -- Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch (who has since dropped out of the running) -- did not like the idea of gays in the military. In fact, they favored reinstating the ban on homosexual soldiers. The party's leading candidates, George W. Bush, Steve Forbes and John McCain (himself a former serviceman) favored retaining the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy. McCain did, however, say that the policy was not functioning properly now. Only the Democrats, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, had the guts to propose that homosexuals be allowed to serve openly.

One of the biggest crises facing the military today is a personnel shortage. Various ideas, such as raising wages and more vigorous advertising and recruiting have been suggested to help the armed forces compete in the booming job market. In light of this shortage, it makes little sense to turn away a sector of the able-bodied population when the military most needs recruits.

The military ought to judge its servicemen by the qualities that will actually affect the outcome on the battlefield. And there is no evidence that gay soldiers are any less intelligent, cool-headed or valiant than straight ones.

It is sometimes suggested that gays would attempt to rape or seduce their fellow soldiers. This assumption is that homosexuals are by definition immoral perverts. But a gay person is no more likely to attempt an immoral act than a straight person. It is much more logical to punish acts that have been committed than to punish an assumed predisposition to commit them.

There was a time when "don't ask, don't tell" sounded like a good idea. Initially, the Clinton administration wanted to completely lift the ban on homosexuals in the military. Unfortunately, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were too conservative to permit that change. In the end, they settled on "don't ask, don't tell" as a way to let gays into the armed services, while allowing others to remain in denial about it.

Unfortunately, "don't ask, don't tell" has not produced the expected harmony of homosexuals and homophobes. The number of incidents of harrassment directed toward suspected gays as well as discharges for homosexuality have both increased since "don't ask, don't tell" was implemented. The cause? Exactly the reason "don't ask, don't tell" was agreed on -- it allows gays to serve, while others can deny that they are serving.

McCain, in attempting to explain his support for homosexual service, told reporters that he served alongside gay men during his time in the Navy. Yet when asked how he knew that they were gay, he resorted to a confused explanation premised on what is sometimes called "gaydar" - that people have a sort of radar that can detect homosexuality based on a person's attitude and conduct.

Though McCain tried to be tactful with his explanation and avoided citing stereotypically gay mannerisms, he was criticized for jumping to conclusions about his fellow servicemen. But the important thing is not whether they were gay. The important thing is that many people genuinely believe that they have "gaydar," whether or not they really do.

If homophobic servicemen or those who are simply uncomfortable with the notion of homosexuality know that gays have gotten into the military, that gives them a reason to turn on their "gaydar." With the "gaydar" running, they are more likely to pick up on signals both real and imagined. This means more suspicions and, as a result, more harrassment and investigations.

The military could confront this problem. But that would involve admitting that gays are serving in our armed forces. "Don't ask, don't tell" gains much of its appeal from its ability to let people deny that fact. Furthermore, because open homosexuality is still grounds for dismissal, soldiers being harrassed because of real or imagined clues about their sexual orientation are afraid to seek help, for fear of prompting an investigation to determine if they really are gay.

The only solution is to allow homosexuals to serve openly. By admitting that it has gay servicemen, the armed forces could develop stronger anti-harrassment procedures and educational initiatives that would allow it to confront, rather than ignore, homophobic incidents.

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