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Don't ask, don't tell (DADT) is the common term for the policy banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military, as mandated by federal law ( ). Unless one of the exceptions from applies, the policy prohibits anyone who "demonstrate(s) a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts" from serving in the armed forces of the United States, because "it would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability." The act prohibits any homosexual or bisexual person from disclosing his or her sexual orientation or from speaking about any homosexual relationships, including marriages or other familial attributes, while serving in the United States armed forces. The "don't ask" part of the policy indicates that superiors should not initiate investigation of a service member's orientation in the absence of disallowed behaviors, though mere suspicion of homosexual behavior can cause an investigation. This policy has made the United States the only Western, rich, and industrialized nation that forbids gays from serving openly in the military, though many of those other nations have mandatory conscription.

Beginning of the policy

The policy was introduced as a compromise measure in 1993 by then President Bill Clinton who, while campaigning for the Presidency, had promised to allow all citizens regardless of sexual orientation to serve openly in the military, a departure from the then complete ban on those who are not heterosexual. The concept was rejected by Congress in its passage of the Military Personnel Eligibility Act of 1993, which simply codified the existing standard set by the Defense Department in 1981. Clinton established the policy through Executive Order in December 1993.


During the American Revolutionary War, the armed forces treated sodomy (then broadly defined as oral or anal sexual conduct) as grounds for being dishonorably discharged. The first such recorded discharge was in 1778, when Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin was (with the approval of General George Washington) dishonorably discharged following a conviction of homosexual sodomy and perjury. The Articles of War maintained the crime of sodomy, but it was not until 1942 that the armed forces considered homosexual status (as assessed by the military through a process of recruitment screening or internal investigations) as grounds for nonselection or separation from the military. Thus, anyone in the armed forces labeled as gay or bisexual were subject to criminal sanctions under the sodomy prohibition, or could be given a blue discharge and returned to civilian life, where they were denied G.I. Bill benefits by the Veterans Administrationmarker.

Blue discharges were discontinued in May 1947, with discharges that would formerly have been blue now falling under one of two new headings, "general" and "undesirable". A general discharge was considered to be under honorable conditions – which is distinct from an "honorable discharge" – and an undesirable discharge was under conditions other than honorable – which, again, is distinct from a "dishonorable discharge". At the same time, however, the Army changed its regulations to ensure that homosexuals would not qualify for general discharges. Under this system, a servicemember found to be homosexual but who has not committed any homosexual acts while in service would receive an undesirable discharge. Those who were found guilty of engaging in homosexual conduct were dishonorably discharged. By the 1970s, a gay servicemember who had not committed any homosexual acts while in service would tend to receive a general discharge, while those found to have engaged in homosexual conduct would tend to receive undesirable discharges. However, the reality remained that gay servicemembers received a disproportionate percentage of undesirable discharges issued.

The success of the armed forces in pre-screening self-identified gay and bisexual people from the 1940s through 1981 remains in dispute; during the Vietnam War, some men pretended to be gay in order to avoid the draft. However, a significant number of gay and bisexual men and women did manage to avoid the pre-screening process and serve in the military, some with special distinction. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Navy medical doctor Tom Dooley received national fame for his anti-Communist and humanitarian efforts in Vietnam. His homosexuality was something of an open secret in the Navy, but eventually he was forced to resign; the Navy subsequently conducted the first official study on sexual orientation and the Navy regulations and rules. The 1957 report, titled Report of the Board Appointed to Prepare and Submit Recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy for the Revision of Policies, Procedures and Directives Dealing With Homosexuals (better known as the Crittenden Report) found that gay-identified people were no more likely to be a security risk than heterosexual-identified people, and found there was no rational basis for excluding gay people from the Navy, although it stopped short of recommending a change in the regulations because of social mores.

Beyond the official regulations, gay people were often the target of various types of harassment by their fellow servicemen, designed to persuade them to resign from the military or turn themselves in to investigators. The most infamous type of such harassment was called a blanket party; during the night in the barracks, several service members first covered the face of the victim with a blanket and then committed assault, often quite severely and sometimes even fatally, as in the case of Allen R. Schindler, Jr.. When passing the DADT bill, President Clinton cited U.S. Navy Radioman Third Class Schindler, who was brutally murdered by shipmate Terry M. Helvey (with the aid of an accomplice), leaving a "nearly-unrecognizable corpse".The introduction of "Don't ask, don't tell" with the later amendment of "don't pursue, don't harass" has officially prohibited such behavior, but reports suggest that such harassment continues.

During the 1970s, several high-profile court challenges to the military's regulations on homosexuality occurred, with little success, and when such successes did occur it was when the plaintiff had been open about his homosexuality from the beginning or due to the existence of the "queen for a day" rule. In 1981, the Department of Defensemarker issued a new regulation on homosexuality that was designed to ensure withstanding a court challenge by developing uniform and clearly defined regulations and justifications that made homosexual status, whether self-applied or by the military, and conduct grounds for discharge (DOD Directive 1332.14 (Enlisted Administrative Separations), January, 1981):

The directive justified the policy and removed the "queen for a day" rule that had prompted some courts to rule against the armed forces. However, the intent of the policy had also been to treat homosexuality as being akin to a disability discharge and thus ensure that anyone found engaging in homosexual activity and/or identifying as gay, would be separated with an honorable discharge. The DOD policy has since withstood most court challenges, although the United States Supreme Courtmarker has refused to weigh in on the constitutionality of the policy, preferring to allow lower courts and the United States Congress to settle the matter.

In the 1980s, many of the Democratic Party presidential candidates expressed an interest in changing the regulations concerning homosexuality in the armed forces, and, as American social mores changed, public opinion began to express more sympathy with gay people in armed forces, at least to the extent that investigations into a serviceman or -woman's sexual behaviour and/or orientation were seen as a witch-hunt. "Gays in the military" became a political issue during the 1992 Presidential campaign, when Clinton, the Democratic candidate, promised to lift the military's ban on homosexual and bisexual people.

In 1992, the United States General Accounting Office published a report entitled Defense Force Management: DOD's Policy on Homosexuality, that outlined the DOD policy on homosexuality and the reasons for it. The report also included excerpts from a previously unpublished 1988 Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center study on homosexuality that made similar conclusions as the 1957 Crittenden Report.

Congressional opposition to lifting the ban on gay and bisexual people in the armed forces was led by Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgiamarker who organized Congressional hearings that largely buffed the armed forces position that has remained unchanged since the 1981 directive. While Congressional support for reform was led by Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusettsmarker, who fought for a compromise, and retired Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who argued for a complete repeal of the ban. After a large number of people flooded the Congressional phone lines with oppositions to lifting the ban, President Clinton soon backed off on his campaign promise to lift the ban on homosexual and bisexual people in the armed forces. Subsequently, Congress compromised, amending "Don't ask, don't tell" with "don't harass". Officially, the compromise dictates that the armed forces will no longer ask recruits about their sexual activity and/or orientation, will not investigate any serviceman or servicewoman's sexual activity and/or orientation without solid evidence (thus preventing witch-hunts), and self-identified homosexual servicemen and women agree that they will not engage in homosexual sex acts, or otherwise announce their homosexuality through public statements or open participation in a same-sex marriage.

In September 2005, the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military – a think tank affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbaramarker, and renamed the Michael D. Palm Center in October 2006 – issued a news release revealing the existence of a 1999 FORSCOM regulation (Regulation 500-3-3) that allowed the active duty deployment of Army Reservists and National Guard troops who say that they are gay or who are accused of being gay. U.S. Army Forces Command spokesperson Kim Waldron later confirmed the regulation and indicated that it was intended to prevent Reservists and National Guard members from pretending to be gay to escape combat.

DADT has been upheld five times in federal court, and in a Supreme Courtmarker case, Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc. (2006), the Supreme Court unanimously held that the federal government could withhold funding in order to force universities to accept military recruiters in spite of their nondiscrimination policies.

In 1993, the National Defense Research Institute prepared a study for the Office of the Secretary of Defense published as Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment. It concluded, in measured language, that "circumstances could exist under which the ban on homosexuals could be lifted with little or no adverse consequences for recruitment and retention" if the policy were implemented with care, principally because many factors contribute to individual enlistment and re-enlistment decisions.

Public opinion

Polls have shown that a large majority of the American public favors allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the U.S. military. A national poll conducted in May 2005 by the Boston Globe showed 79% of participants having nothing against openly gay people from serving in the military. In a 2008 Washington PostABC News poll, 75% of Americans – including 80% of Democrats, 75% of independents, and 66% of conservatives – said that openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the military.

Military personnel opinion

A 2006 Zogby International poll of military members found that 26% were in favor of gays and lesbians serving in the military, 37% opposed gays and lesbians serving, and 37% expressed no preference or were unsure. 66% of respondents who had experience with gays or lesbians in their unit said that the presence of gay or lesbian unit members had either no impact or a positive impact on their personal morale, while 64% said as much for overall unit morale. Of those respondents uncertain whether they had served with gay or lesbian personnel, 51% thought that such unit members would have a neutral or positive effect on personal morale, while 48% thought that they would have a negative effect on unit morale. 73% of respondents said that they felt comfortable in the presence of gay and lesbian personnel.

Criticism from military personnel

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili (Ret.) and former Senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen spoke against the policy publicly in January 2007: "I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces," General Shalikashvili wrote. "Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job."

In December 2007, 28 retired generals and admirals urged Congress to repeal the policy, citing evidence that 65,000 gay men and women are currently serving in the armed forces and that there are over 1,000,000 gay veterans. On November 17, 2008, 104 retired generals and admirals signed a similar statement.

On May 4, 2008, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, when speaking to graduating cadets at West Pointmarker, expressed the view "that Congress, and not the military, is responsible for [DADT]". Mullen's answer came in response to a cadet's question asking what would happen if the next administration were supportive of legislation allowing gays to serve openly. During his Senate confirmation hearing in 2007, Mullen told lawmakers, "I really think it is for the American people to come forward, really through this body, to both debate that policy and make changes, if that's appropriate." He went on to say, "I'd love to have Congress make its own decisions" with respect to considering repeal.

In an interview on CNN's State of the Union broadcast on July 5, 2009, Colin Powell said he thought that the policy was "correct for the time" but that "sixteen years have now gone by, and I think a lot has changed with respect to attitudes within our country, and therefore I think this is a policy and a law that should be reviewed." In the same program, Mike Mullen said the policy would continue to be implemented until the law was repealed, and that his advice was to "move in a measured way... At a time when we're fighting two conflicts there is a great deal of pressure on our forces and their families."

Several gay service members have written novels and nonfiction works about life in the military under DADT. In 2005, Rich Merritt released his memoir Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star, and in 2008 Brett Edward Stout released his first novel, Sugar-Baby Bridge. Openly gay service member Dan Choi, who helped found West Pointmarker's LBGT group Knight's Out, made an appearance on the web-based documentary series In Their Boots, criticizing the U.S. military's neglect of the partners of service members. As a linguist, Choi was among 59 gay Arabic speakers discharged by the military, along with 9 gay Farsi speakers discharged by the military up to June 2009, despite a shortage of translators for these languages.

In September 2009, Air Force Colonel Om Prakash sharply criticized the policy in an article published in Joint Force Quarterly. He argued that it is unsound for numerous reasons, including the complete lack of any scientific basis for the proposition that unit cohesion is compromised by open homosexuals serving in the military. The article won the Secretary of Defense National Security Essay competition for 2009.

President Barack Obama's position

During his presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama advocated repeal of the policy to allow gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the armed forces, agreeing with General Shalikashvili and stating that the U.S. government has spent millions of dollars replacing troops expelled from the military, including language experts fluent in Arabic.

19 days after his election, Obama's advisers announced that plans to repeal the policy may be delayed until as late as 2010, because Obama "first wants to confer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his new political appointees at the Pentagon to reach a consensus, and then present legislation to Congress."

Obama's current position is that Congress has exclusive authority to lift the ban. However, in May 2009, a committee of military law experts at the University of California at Santa Barbara concluded that it is within the authority of the executive branch to discontinue the policy.

In July 2009, the White House and other Democrats allegedly pressured Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings to withdraw an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act ( ) that would have prevented the military from using money to carry out the provisions of DADT.

In a major departure from his campaign promises, Obama's administration is defending the policy in court. Regarding the first reference, the government had argued before the Federal Appeals Court in San Francisco that the policy should have a blanket application, therefore negating a requirement for an expulsion review based on merit. Obama administration lawyers let pass the May 3, 2009 deadline to appeal, and the case reverted to the district court. In court documents, government lawyers agreed with the ruling of the Federal Appeals Court in Boston that DADT is "rationally related to the government's legitimate interest in military discipline and cohesion." An appeal of this case, Pietrangelo v. Gates 08-824, was subsequently rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On the eve of the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., October 10, 2009, Barack Obama stated in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign that he will end the policy, but offered no timetable.


In the fiscal years since the policy was first introduced in 1993, the military has discharged over 13,000 troops from the military under DADT. The number of discharges per year under DADT dropped sharply after the September 11 attacks and has remained relatively low since. Discharges exceed 600 each year. Statistics on the number of persons discharged per year:

Year Coast Guard Marines Navy Army Air Force Total
1994 0 36 258 136 187 617
1995 15 69 269 184 235 772
1996 12 60 315 199 284 870
1997 10 78 413 197 309 1,007
1998 14 77 345 312 415 1,163
1999 12 97 314 271 352 1,046
2000 19 104 358 573 177 1,241
2001* 1,273
2002* 906
2003* 787
2004 15 59 177 325 92 668
2005 16 75 177 386 88 742
2006* 623
2007* 627
2008* 619
Total 113 655 2,626 2,583 2,139 12,961
*Breakdown of discharges by service branch not available

Financial impact of policy

In February 2005, the Government Accountability Office released estimates on the cost of the policy. Cautioning that the amount may be too low, the GAO reported $95.4 million in recruiting costs and $95.1 million for training replacements for the 9,488 troops discharged from 1994 through 2003.

In February 2006, a University of California Blue Ribbon Commission including Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration, former Defense Secretary William Perry, a member of the Clinton administration, and professors from the United States Military Academy at West Pointmarker concluded that figure should be closer to $363 million, including $14.3 million for "separation travel" once a service member is discharged, $17.8 million for training officers, $252.4 million for training enlistees and $79.3 million in recruiting costs. The commission report stated that the GAO didn't take into account the value the military lost from the departures.

Military Readiness Enhancement Act

The Military Readiness Enhancement Act is a bill introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives with the stated purpose "to amend title 10, United States Code, to enhance the readiness of the Armed Forces by replacing the current policy concerning homosexuality in the Armed Forces, referred to as 'Don't ask, don't tell,' with a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

Situation outside the United States

Most Western military forces have now removed policies excluding individuals of sexual orientations other than heterosexual (with strict policies on sexual harassment). Of the 26 countries that participate militarily in NATOmarker, more than 22 permit gay people to serve; of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, two (Britain, France) permit gay people to serve openly, and three (United States, Russia, China) do not. Besides Greecemarker, which bans homosexuals from serving, all other members of EU permit gay people to serve openly. The Greek discrimination policy has become the object of criticism by the European Union, as EU law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2009, Argentinamarker, Uruguaymarker and Philippinesmarker allowed gay men to serve openly in the military. Israel Defense Forces policies allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly and without discrimination or harassment due to actual or perceived sexual orientation, including special units. Consul David Saranga at the Israeli Consulate in New York Citymarker, stated, "It's a non-issue. You can be a very good officer, a creative one, a brave one, and be gay at the same time."

See also



  • Bérubé, Allan (1990). Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. New York, The Penguin Group.
  • Jones, Major Bradley K. (January 1973). "The Gravity of Administrative Discharges: A Legal and Empirical Evaluation" The Military Law Review 59:1–26.
  • Shilts, Randy (1993). Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. New York, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 031209261X

Further reading

External links

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