Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Is the Gay Ban Based on Military Necessity?

Article excerpt

Ten years ago, President Bill Clinton, the US Congress, and much of the nation were swept up in a monumental debate on whether or not acknowledged gays and lesbians would be allowed to serve in the US military. Having promised in his campaign to extend this civil right to gays and lesbians, Clinton faced a difficult challenge when he attempted to fulfill his pledge, opposed as he was by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and prominent members of Congress, like Senator Sam Nunn. In spite of their opposition, Clinton pressed on, and on 29 January 1993, he suspended the former policy that banned gay and lesbian personnel from service outright. Initiated by President Carter and implemented by President Reagan, this policy had been under attack by gay and lesbian military personnel since its inception as discriminatory, (1) and Clinton intended to formulate a new policy that would be more tolerant of sexual minorities in the US military and preserve military effectiveness. (2)

Over the next six months, Congress held numerous hearings on this issue and ultimately included a new policy on homosexual soldiers in the 1994 National Defense Authorization Act, commonly referred to as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." (3) Billed by many as a compromise, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been the subject of much criticism by both experts and activists, who view it as an imperfect solution to the problem it tried to solve ten years ago. (4) In many ways, it was a politically expedient policy that pleased no one, and on its ten-year anniversary, perhaps it deserves to be revisited and evaluated in light of the impressive amount of evidence that scholars and experts have gathered about this issue in the interim.

According to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," known homosexuals are not allowed to serve in the US armed forces. Unlike the previous policy, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" does not allow the military to ask enlistees if they are gay, but similar to its predecessor, it does stipulate that service members who disclose that they are homosexual are subject to dismissal. The official justification for the current policy is the unit cohesion rationale, which states that military performance would decline if known gay and lesbian soldiers were permitted to serve in uniform. (5) While scholars and experts continue to disagree whether lifting the ban would undermine military performance in the United States, evidence from studies on foreign militaries on this question suggests that lifting bans on homosexual personnel does not threaten unit cohesion or undermine military effectiveness. As imperfect an analogy as these countries' experience may be to the United States, they serve as the best possible vantage point from which to evalu ate the viability and necessity of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Currently, 24 nations allow gays and lesbians to serve in their armed forces, and only a few NATO members continue to fire homosexual soldiers. Despite the growing number of countries that have decided to allow gays and lesbians to serve in uniform, however, there has been little in-depth analysis of whether the lifting of a gay ban influences military performance. Even the best and most recent case studies of foreign countries are based on little evidence. Most were written in the immediate aftermath of a decision to lift a gay ban without waiting for evidence on the effects of the new policy to accumulate.

The lack of in-depth analysis of foreign experiences in lifting bans on homosexual personnel prompted the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (CSSMM) to examine four cases in detail: Australia, Canada, Israel, and Britain. (6) CSSMM researchers focused on these countries because all four lifted their gay bans despite opposition from the military services; because the United States, Australia, Canada, and Britain share important cultural traditions; because the Israel Defense Forces are among the most combat-tested militaries in the world; and because prior to lifting its ban, Britain's policy was often cited as support for those opposed to allowing homosexual personnel to serve openly in the United States. …