This article covers the history of the Don't ask, don't tell policy in the United States.


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 Gotthold Frederick 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 being separated 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 dishonorable discharge (often a Section 8) and returned to civilian life, where they would not receive veterans benefits and often had difficulty finding employment because most civilian employers knew what a Section 8 discharge meant.

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 Conflict, 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 "Don't ask, don't tell" 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".[1] 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.[2]

The degree of official and unofficial attempts to separate gay people from the armed forces seems to be directly related to the personnel needs of the armed forces.[citation needed] Hence, during wartime, it has not been uncommon for the rules regarding homosexuality to be relaxed. Until 1981, it was the policy of all branches of the armed forces to retain, at their discretion, anyone suspected of homosexual activity, thus promoting the "queen for a day" rule, which allowed a person accused of homosexuality to remain in the armed forces if one could successfully claim that their behavior was only a singular occurrence.[citation needed] This especially became the case during the Vietnam War.[citation needed]

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 Defense 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):

Homosexuality is incompatible with military service. The presence in the military environment of persons who engage in homosexual conduct or who, by their statements, demonstrate a propensity to engage in homosexual conduct, seriously impairs the accomplishment of the military mission. The presence of such members adversely affects the ability of the armed forces to maintain discipline, good order, and morale; to foster mutual trust and confidence among service members; to insure the integrity of the system of rank and command; to facilitate assignment and worldwide deployment of service members who frequently must live and work in close conditions affording minimal privacy; to recruit and retain members of the armed forces; to maintain the public acceptability of military service; and to prevent breaches of security.

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 Court 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. GAO/NSAID-92-98, that outlined the DOD policy on homosexuality and the reasons for it. The report also included excerpts from a previously unpublished 1988 DOD study on homosexuality that made similar conclusions as the 1957 Crittenden Report. In 1993 the two reports were published alongside an argument by an armed forces general who argued against lifting the ban on homosexual- and bisexual-identified people based on a belief that they pose a security risk, will erode unit cohesion and morale alongside the argument that most homosexual and bisexual oriented people are pedophiles who engage in a self-destructive and immoral life-style.

Congressional opposition to lifting the ban on gay and bisexual people in the armed forces was led by Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia 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 Massachusetts, 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. The final result was a Congressional compromise of "Don't ask, don't tell" that was later amended to include "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 do anything that announces that they are a homosexual, i.e. public statements or participate in a same-sex marriage openly.

In 2000, Northwestern University Professor Charles Moskos, the principal author of DADT (which, as originally coined by Moskos, was "Don't Ask Don't Tell; Don't Seek Don't Flaunt"), told "Lingua Franca" that he felt that policy will be gone within five to ten years. Moskos also dismissed the unit cohesion argument, instead arguing that gay people should be banned due to "modesty rights", saying "Fuck unit cohesion. I don't care about that...I should not be forced to shower with a woman. I should not be forced to shower with a gay [man]." Moskos did not offer any alternative to his DADT policy. [3]

File:Congressman Marty Meehan joined by retired flag officers interested in repealling DADT.jpg

On September 13, 2005, the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (on October 23, 2006 renamed the Michael D. Palm Center), a think tank affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, 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.[4]

"Don't ask, don't tell" has been upheld five times in federal court, and in a recent Supreme Court case, Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, 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.[5]


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