Ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’


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“No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.” Those were the words of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking last week before a Senate panel. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that bans openly gay and lesbian individuals from serving in the military, has run its course.

Since 1993, thousands of men and women have been discharged from the military, and recruitment has been down. Many of those were specialists with proficiency in languages such as Arabic.

Human Rights Campaign, a civil-rights organization, estimates that 65,000 gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans are ably serving right now. And in Afghanistan, American troops are serving alongside military units from other countries that are fully open and inclusive.

Practically speaking, the arguments that have been used to support Don’t Ask simply don’t stand up.

The FBI, CIA, NASA, the National Security Agency, and the Secret Service allow openly gay and lesbian individuals to serve. There have been no reports of disorder or lack of cohesion in these agencies. Most local law-enforcement agencies have eliminated prohibitions without any negative effects.

But the military is a peculiar institution, right? It’s subject to a different set of norms, behaviors, and expectations.

While the United States spends more money on defense than any other country, we are also one of the few remaining developed countries to prohibit gays and lesbians from serving openly. Many European countries have done away with such restrictions, and countries such as South Africa and Israel have as well. Not one of these countries has experienced an erosion of morale, performance, or cohesion in their armed forces.

So the policy never was based on observable facts. Rather, it reflected discrimination and intolerance in American society writ large. By forcing men and women to lie about who they are, we have expelled and prevented qualified people from serving. But we have also committed an injustice.

Mullen’s statement was significant. In 1993, it was mostly the military that blocked then-President Clinton’s attempt to strip away one’s sexual orientation as a condition for military service. Now, as public opinion has shifted, the military is acknowledging what many have known for some time — sexual orientation has no bearing on an individual’s ability to serve in the military. Even Colin Powell, who led the charge in 1993 against allowing open service, has recently changed his mind.

Although repeal of Don’t Ask appears to be inevitable, there will still be those who’ll be obstructive. Repeal of the policy will take an act of Congress, and in today’s hyper-partisan climate, we may be in for a raucous debate. But this is an issue that members of Congress shouldn’t compromise on. And it’s a debate that Congress shouldn’t shy away from. This policy puts our military at a disadvantage and is morally wrong.

When President Truman desegregated the military in 1948, he did so before Congress had passed any meaningful civil-rights legislation. He did so despite much of the public and military’s opposition. Some argued that desegregation would dampen morale and cohesion. There were those who thought that African Americans weren’t capable of the type of service exhibited by their white counterparts.

The executive order issued by Truman was courageous then, but was really a no-brainer. The same could be said about Don’t Ask.

While we have made much progress on race, the repealing of policies such as Don’t Ask represents this generation’s fight for equality. We shouldn’t take for granted communities such as Iowa City or campuses such as the UI. Across this country — and indeed, throughout the world — the fight remains.

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