Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed April 1999
Copyright ©1999 by Nathaniel Frank

For improved image, the Pentagon should scrap 'don't ask, don't tell'
By Nathaniel Frank
Nathaniel Frank of New York City is working on his Ph.D. in history at Brown University. His research explores economic development and male identity in 19th-century America.

"The ["don't ask, don't tell"] policy shows the military to be out of step
with a growing American consensus that believes differences ought to be
tolerated when they have no bearing on performance ability"

Just weeks before the U.S. military launched air strikes against Serb forces in Yugoslavia, the Senate voted to give American troops their largest pay and pension increase in nearly two decades. The vote followed unprecedented public outreach initiated by Secretary of Defense William Cohen to "reconnect America to its military." Seeking to drum up support for new funding requests, reverse declining numbers of enlistees and improve the overall image of a military force that many Americans view as less and less relevant, Cohen is traveling the country trying to appeal to bright, educated young people who increasingly opt for careers in business or technology.

But the pay raises will not be enjoyed by the more than 1,000 soldiers expected to be booted from the service this year for being gay, lesbian or bisexual. The military's current policy on sexuality, known as "don't ask, don't tell," allows homosexuals to serve but requires them to avoid any mention of their sexuality and to remain celibate for the duration of their service. Last year a record 1,145 people were fired under the terms of the policy - three to four each day. The second-class status of gay soldiers was inscribed into federal law in 1993 even though no study has ever linked openly gay service with impairing combat performance.

If the Pentagon is genuinely concerned about improving its image, it might begin by scrapping "don't ask, don't tell," a last bastion of federal discrimination against gay and lesbian soldiers. The policy shows the military to be out of step with a growing American consensus that believes differences ought to be tolerated when they have no bearing on performance ability. A recent Gallup poll showed that 65 percent of the American public favors allowing gays to be soldiers; even among the military's own rank and file, opposition to gay service has plummeted, from 63 percent in 1993 to 36 percent last year.

While the proportion of troops forcibly ousted by "don't ask, don't tell" is rather small, the overall damage reaches far beyond a handful of wrecked careers. The discharge numbers fail to count the thousands of gay soldiers and officers who abandon military service because their lives are ruled by an atmosphere of repression and indignity. For those willing and able to stay in the closet, the policy creates what one federal judge has called "a degrading and deplorable condition for remaining in the armed services." And the numbers ignore those who continue to be barred outright from entry: For the young gays and lesbians courageous enough to admit who they are in high school or college, military service - with its incomparable personal, professional and financial rewards - remains an impossibility. Once you're out of the closet, you can't exactly go back in.

But the policy affects more, even, than the small minority of Americans who identify as gay or lesbian. The Pentagon wastes millions of dollars every year in investigating, removing and replacing gay troops. Meanwhile, it spends millions more in pay increases, advertisements and other incentives to fill vacant slots, many of which only became vacant because gay soldiers were expelled. As the American public considers the nation's budgetary priorities in coming months, it may rightly resent supporting the billions of dollars requested by a Pentagon whose resolve to discriminate outweighs its commitment to fiscal prudence.

More important, by creating a climate that is blindly intolerant of sexual difference, the policy may alienate thousands of potential recruits who might fear that their own subtle differences will meet with scorn and rejection. The message is that anyone who doesn't fit conventional notions of what it means to be a "real man" or a "real woman" is somehow dangerous, ineffectual, or both. It suggests that only the straightest of arrows - in the narrowest sense - can find success and acceptance in military service. A military culture that seems bent on shoring up its machismo credentials projects the image of an aggressively masculine culture, homophobic at its core, led by a small circle of commanding men who bristle at the prospect of taking orders from anyone outside the Pentagon.

Making the military a more welcome place for gays and lesbians would not fill the vacancies vexing the Pentagon. It would, however, send a strong message that the military is not an alien culture, but reflects the tolerant and inclusive America it exists to serve. It would be a great step toward reminding America of the values and ideals that are worth defending.