Opinion

Don’t ask, don’t tell,
don’t keep

The repeal of DADT has corrected a deep and pernicious social injustice

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) does not simply disallow gay soldiers from serving — it marginalizes gays. Keeping this antiquated law is to continue institutionalizing discrimination within the military. Since 1941, the U.S. has discharged more than 110,000 soldiers for being gay. Since Obama took office, the U.S. has discharged more than 13,000 troops under DADT. We are firing good soldiers who have put their lives on the line to protect our country. We have lost our men and women not to war, but to our own bigotry. Thankfully, times are changing, because recent studies have shown that service members think positively of the repeal of DADT. At long last, openly gay service members are able to pridefully serve their country in a military capacity.

December 2009. Greenwich Village, New York. I head to a civil disobedience meeting, held in an abandoned theater. Scattered music stands and tattered curtains decorate the place. I seat myself among dozens of demonstrators-in-training. Veteran activist, and veteran, Justin Crockett Elzie, the first Marine to challenge DADT with a federal court case in 1993, sits across the room. It has been more than a decade since his coming out against DADT, and yet he continues to fight for gay rights. A few days later, Justin and the other demonstrators chain themselves to the marriage license bureau protesting for marriage equality. I had school that day.

Today, Justin has written a memoir, Playing by the Rules, retelling his time serving as an out Marine. His memoir reverberates with many people who have been discharged under DADT. To show how scarring DADT is to the military, Justin recounts being in the closet back in 1993:

“I had seen examples of how the Marine Corps had gone to lengths in the past to protect its image and from my experiences with the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) it made me a bit paranoid. The military and NCIS have a history of tracking gay service members and ruining their lives. Because of the clandestine way the military seeks out gay service members, one learns to not trust people in general, to lie, and to strategize to survive in a hostile environment. Over the years, I had learned how to ride that fine line and to be as out as I could without getting caught. I had come to loathe the hypocrisy and the witchhunts in the Marines and the Navy that destroyed so many of my friends’ lives. I wanted to throw it back in their faces and stand up and fight the injustice that I had seen throughout my ten years in the Corps.”

Justin’s fear and paranoia is shared by many other closeted soldiers. Gay soldiers cannot trust others to watch their backs because they fear being outed. Unit cohesion is destroyed. The witch-hunt mentality set by the NCIS does not build military unity, but damages it. How can soldiers feel safe in each others’ hands when they do not feel safe around each other?

But take fear out of the equation. Repeal DADT, and people’s attitudes change. In response to Obama’s challenge to DADT back in 2010, the Department of Defense conducted a comprehensive review on the impacts of repealing DADT by surveying service members’ opinions for over nine months. The research shows that when service members without deployment experience were asked if their units’ effectiveness would be affected by the repeal, “almost 80 percent said repeal would have a positive, a mixed or no effect.”

But this varies with service members with deployment experience whose surveys came back with “56 percent [saying] it would have a positive, mixed, or no effect, and 44 percent [saying] it would have a negative effect” if they were deployed “in a field environment or out at sea.” This is significantly different from the previous group, and may even suggest that having gays in the military will break down unit cohesion during mission deployment, thereby risking lives. But consider the DOD’s last statistic: When asked about a DADT repeal’s effect “in intense combat situations” or “when a crisis or negative event happens that affects your unit,” the predictions of negative effects went down. About 30 percent said that repeal would have a negative effect, while around 70 percent said it would have a positive, mixed, or no effect on their unit’s effectiveness. What this statistical discrepancy says is that in times of crisis, troops focus on completing the mission and surviving, not on gays acting out sexually. Having gays in the military makes straight soldiers uncomfortable when sharing bathrooms, but would not affect their carrying out a mission, or military training, or mission strategy, or deploying equipment. There is no reason to blame gays for poor military performance.

The only way to snap soldiers out of this ignorant mentality is educate them about gay people. For too long, demagogues like McCain have made gays look like sexual fiends. They focus our attention to showers-scenarios but shy away from real issues like military spending. For too long, good soldiers like Justin Elzie have been punished when they should have been rewarded. For too long, the military has worked divided. But now they will work as one.

“They gave a medal for killing two men, but a discharge for loving one.”

—Leonard Matlovich, 1975

6 Comments
1
Michael@LeonardMatlovich.com over 7 years ago

You might be interested to know that, after his discharge, knowing that he had been a highly rated Race Relations Instructor for the Air Force, some in the Justice Department of President Carter tried to convince them to hire my late friend Leonard Matlovich as a civilian instructor for Air Force personnel about gay people. Alas, they refused. Hopefully, once repeal is actualized, the DoD will have the sense to utlilize gay veterans like Justin and Dan Choi and Evelyn Thomas to do some training. For more information about Leonard, please see www.leonardmatlovich.com. Thank you.

2
Proud Soldier over 7 years ago

Great Job! However, you are mistaken regarding the amount of soldiers discharged since Obama took office... There have not been 13,000 soldiers discharged since Obama took office. 13,000 soldiers have been discharged since the implementation of the policy in 1993, around between 700-1050 have been discharged since Obama was elected. However, other than that a great read.

3
Marcus Aurelius over 7 years ago

The fact that gay soldiers cannot trust others to have their backs out of fear of being outed is an argument for excluding them from service. The remedy then is to repeal the ban on gays, but leave the "don't ask don't tell" part in place. You can't be kicked out if somebody accuses you of being gay after discovering evidence of it. Commanding officers can't follow up on the accusation because they can't "ask." And if you don't "tell" then everything is hunky dory.

Right now, DADT lets straight soldiers pretend that everyone around them is straight. At the same time, gay soldiers can serve, they just need to shut up. Everybody wins. Keep the policy in place and kick the can down the road. After a few more decades, it may make sense to repeal the law, but not now.

It sounds like a stupid arrangement, but we live in a real world in which we have to make compromises.

4
Soldier over 7 years ago

3: "At the same time, gay soldiers can serve, they just need to shut up. Everybody wins. "

No, everybody does not win. Under your proposal, what constitutes "telling"? If a gay Soldier is wounded or killed in combat, if their partner comes to the hospital or receives their death benefitSGLV, is that telling? When calling or emailing home to a partner, is it considered telling if they talk like a heterosexual couple? Is it considered telling for a gay Soldier to get married in a state that permits it?

The crux of it comes down to this: under the old policy, "telling" wasn't simply going into the commander's office and making an announcement. It was all the things that go along with a person in a relationship. A straight Soldier could talk about the fact that they went to dinner with their significant other. A gay person couldn't. A straight Soldier could get married, a gay Soldier couldn't. A straight Soldier could have a picture of their partner, a gay Soldier couldn't. A straight Soldier could talk about relationship troubles with a chaplain or psychologist, a gay Soldier couldn't. A straight Soldier could talk on the phone or email their partner without raising suspicion. A gay Soldier couldn't. A straight Soldier could have a relationship fail, and even if the other party created noise among that Soldier's colleagues, he could still stay in the service. A gay Soldier would get kicked out. A straight Soldier could kiss their partner on return from deployment. A gay Soldier couldn't. A straight Soldier could hold the hand of their partner. A gay Soldier couldn't. And the list goes on.

There are certain things about being a straight person and being in a straight relationship that are taken for granted by most of the population - to such an extent that they don't notice it. And gaybisexual people are painfully aware of them because they have had to censor any and all expressionssigns of affection. This is true in the civilian world, but particularly in the military.

So no, everybody does NOT win.

5
Marcus Aurelius over 7 years ago

"Under your proposal, what constitutes 'telling'? If a gay Soldier is wounded or killed in combat, if their partner comes to the hospital or receives their death benefitSGLV, is that telling?"

No. The partner would just be turned away as an ineligible claimant. But upon death, there's no point to keeping hush hush about it, because the person isn't alive to damage esprit de corps. So the policy should be changed so that gay soldiers can list their partners as beneficiaries, but they can't otherwise say anything else. All that paperwork is filed away by some bureaucracy the soldier probably doesn't interact with much until after he leaves service.

"When calling or emailing home to a partner, is it considered telling if they talk like a heterosexual couple?"

Why would anyone, gay or straight, conduct intimate conversations in the presence of others? If you can't talk in private, then don't talk at all.

"Is it considered telling for a gay Soldier to get married in a state that permits it?"

As long as the Soldier does not talk about being in a gay marriage, that would not be telling.

6
Soldier over 7 years ago

"No. The partner would just be turned away as an ineligible claimant. But upon death, there's no point to keeping hush hush about it, because the person isn't alive to damage esprit de corps. So the policy should be changed so that gay soldiers can list their partners as beneficiaries, but they can't otherwise say anything else. All that paperwork is filed away by some bureaucracy the soldier probably doesn't interact with much until after he leaves service. "

So a wounded Soldier is not permitted to see the person they care most about in the world? That ought to help recovery.

Soldiers must regularly update their SGLV forms via a DD93. This form requires the Soldier to list their beneficiaries and their relationship to the beneficiaries. If the beneficiaries are not family (by marriage or blood), then the Soldier must be counseled on a 4856 about their decision to leave a benefit to their partner. They do regularly interact with this bureaucracy.

""When calling or emailing home to a partner, is it considered telling if they talk like a heterosexual couple?"

Why would anyone, gay or straight, conduct intimate conversations in the presence of others? If you can't talk in private, then don't talk at all. "

I'm not talking about intimate conversations - I agree with you on this. I'm talking about little things like saying "I love you" to your partner. Or writing an email containing anniversary plans or a mundane thing such as purchasing a house together. You act as if the only tell in a relationship is the nature of the sex. But relationships are visible in so many ways other than sexual. You don't think about them because you are, presumably, straight. It doesn't occur to you that something as innocuous as talking about plans to go on vacation after returning from deployment can reveal a lot about the nature of your relationship. Is that telling?

"As long as the Soldier does not talk about being in a gay marriage, that would not be telling."

But again, what happens when they have to list beneficiaries on their DD93, their next of kin, or in their last will and testament?