Dont ask dont tell

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Don't ask, don't tell is the common term for the current law (Public Law 103-160, codified at 10 U.S.C. Sec. 654) prohibiting anyone who is not heterosexual from disclosing their sexual orientation, or from speaking about any homosexual relationships, including marriages or other familial attributes while serving in the United States armed forces.

It was introduced as a compromise measure in 1993 by 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 contemporary complete ban on those who are not heterosexual. The actual policy was crafted by Colin Powell and has been maintained by Clinton's successor, George W. Bush. The policy requires that as long as gay or bisexual men and women in the military hide anything that could disclose sexual orientation, commanders will not try to investigate their sexuality. Many see the policy as a failure and it is opposed by a percentage of pro- and anti-gay advocates alike.

"Sexual orientation will not be a bar to service unless manifested by homosexual conduct. The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct, which is defined as a homosexual act, a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual, or a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender." — quoted in "The Pentagon's New Policy Guidelines on Homosexuals in the Military", The New York Times (July 201993), p.A14.

Judith Butler (1997) argues that the ban displays a paranoid nature which conflates speech and conduct: "the statement, then, 'I am a homosexual,' is fabulously misconstrued...A claim that is, in the first instance, reflexive, that attributes a status to only oneself, is taken to be hear the utterance is to 'contract' the sexuality to which it refers...This is a statement construed as a solicitation; a constative taken as an interrogative; a self-ascription taken as an address." (p.113) This claim, however, does not address the argument that the policy's stated goal of preserving camraderie and unit cohesion would be just as hindered by an open profession of homosexuality as it would actual homosexual conduct within ranks.


In 1994 gay journalist Randy Shilts published what is considered to be a definite history of homosexuals in the armed forces, from the American Revolutionary War to the first Persian Gulf War. While Shilts clearly had a liberal slant to his research, the book's extensive interviews with numerous servicemen and women, along with historical research of the armed forces treatment of homosexuality in terms of sodomy, security clearanances, witch hunts, women and ethnic minorities in the military, the AIDS-HIV pandemic, and the court challenges is considered to be solid scholarly resarch.

The early American revolutionary war armed forces did treat sodomy (then broadly defined as oral or anal sexual conduct) as grounds for being dishonorably discharged. The first recordered effort of such a discharge, was in 1778 where Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin was dishonorably discharged, with the approval of General George Washington for a conviction of homosexual sodomy and then perjury for lying about it. However, the American revolutionary army relied heavenly on the training of the Prussian drill master named Frederick von Stebun, who was a confirmed bachelor and was secretly fleeing a charge in Europe for homosexual sodomy. The Articles of War kept the crime of sodomy, but it was not until 1942 that armed forces ruled that homosexual status, was considered grounds for being separated from the military, through a process of recruitment screening, and internal investigations that some historians have seen as being witch-hunts. Thus homosexuals in the armed forces were subject to criminal sanctions under the sodomy prohibition or they could be given a dishonorable discharge, often a Section 8 and returned to civilian life where they would not receive veterans benfits and often had difficuliy finding employment because most civilian employees knew what a Section 8 discharge meant.

The success of the armed forces in pre-screening out homosexuals from the 1940s - 1981 remains in dispute, and during the Vietnam Conflict some heterosexuals would try to pretend to be gay in order to avoid the draft. However, a significant number of gay 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 - 1960s the Navy medical doctorTom Dooley received national fame for his anti-Communist and humanitarian efforts in Vietnam. His homosexuality was something of a open secret in the Navy, but eventually he was forced to resign and the Navy conducted what was the first official study on sexual orientation and the Navy regulations and rules. The 1957 reported, 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 (aka the Crittenden Report) found that homosexuals were no more likely to be a security risk than heterosexuals and found there were no rational basis for excluding homosexuals from the Navy, although it stopped short of recommending a change in the regulations because of societies social mores.

Beyond the official regulations, any homosexual was often the target of various types of harassment by their fellow heterosexual servicemen, designed to perusade then to resign from the military or turn themselves into investigators. The most infamous of the harassment was called a "blanket party" and involved several other service members during the night in the barracks first covered the face of the victim with a blanket and then committed assault, often quite severely and occasionally even fatally. The introduction of "Don't Ask, don't tell" with the later amendment of "don't harass, don't pursue" has officially prohibited such behavior but reports suggest that such harassment is still common place. A common tactic aimed at women is lesbian baiting, where a man will demand sexual relations with women, and if she does not comply, he will turn her in as a lesbian. The degree of official and unofficial attempts to separate homosexuals from the armed forces seems to directly related to the man power needs of the armed forces. Hence, during wartime, it has not been uncommon for the rules regarding homosexuality to be relaxed and up until 1981 it was the policy of all branches of the armed forces to retain a homosexual, at their discretion, thus promoting the "queen for a day" rule. This especially became the case during the Vietnam War, where some heterosexuals, including celebrity Chevy Chase, would fake homosexuality in an attempt to avoid being drafted or to be discharged rather then be shipped to Vietnam.

However, 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 to withstand a court challenge by developing uniform and clearly defined regulations and justifications that made homosexual status 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 justifed the directive 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 homosexuals would be separated with a 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.

However, in the 1980s many of the Democratic Party presidential candidates had expressed an interest in changing the regulations concerning homosexuality in the armed forces, and as American society's social mores changed public opinion began to express more sympathy with homosexuals in armed foces, at least to the extend that the investigations into a serviceman or womans's sexual orientation was seen as a witch-hunt. When Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton won the election in 1992, the issue of "gays in the military" became a national issue.

In 1992 the United States General Accounting Office published a report titled 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 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 homosexuals based on a belief that homosexuals pose a security risk, will erode unit cohension and morale alongside the argument that most homosexuals are pedophiles who engaged in a self-desturctive and immoral life-style.

Congressional opposition to lifting the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces was led by Democrat Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia who organzied Congressional hearings that largely buffed the armed forces position that has remained unchanged since the 1981 directive. While Congressional support for reform was lead by Democrat Congressmen Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who fought for a compromise, and Barry Goldwater, who argued for a complete repeal of the ban. Social conservative interest groups successfully flooded the Congressional phone lines with oppositions to lifting the ban, and for his part, President Clinton soon backed off on his campaign promise to lift the ban on homosexuals 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 orientation, will not investigate any serviceman or woman's sexual orientation without solid evidence (thus prevent witch-hunts), and 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. However, the number of homosexuals discharged from the armed forces after the change in policy actually grew as did reports of harassment and unsuccessful court challenges.

In 2000 Charles Moskos, the principal author of DODT told "Lingua Franca" that he felt that policy would be gone within ten years, and dismissed the unit cohesion argument, and instead said, "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]," Mokos does not offer any alternative to his DODT policy.

In January 2005 it was reported by the Department of Defense that between the fiscal years 1998 and 2003, twenty Arabic- and six Farsi-language experts were separated from the armed forces due to "telling."

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been upheld five times in federal court, but the United States Supreme Court is leery of addressing the issue. The historic Supreme Court decision of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), invalidating criminal prohibitions of homosexual sex, on substantive due process and equal protection grounds could lay the precedent for restricting the usage of the armed force's sodomy law as while the military law is broadly written to include heterosexual or homosexual sodomy, it has not been used against adult, and consensual acts of heterosexual sodomy.

In April 2005 The Pentagon's General Counsel issued a recommendation that definition of sodomy should be revised from "unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same or opposite sex" to only involve cases of force or involvement of a minor below the age of sixteen years of age, but The Pentagon quickly denouced the statement.

On September 13 2005 the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, 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 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.[1].


Statistics on the number of persons discharged from the military in the years since the policy was first introduced (1993) show that more people are discharged now than were before. Also, more of these people are given honorable discharges than was the case before.

From Servicemembers Legal Defense Network - Annual Gay Discharges Under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue, Don't Harass"
Year Coast Guard Marines Navy Army Air Force Total

* Breakdown of discharges by service branch not available

Additionally, in February 2005, the Government Accountability Office released estimates on the cost of the policy to the U.S. government, totalling nearly $200 million since 1993.

Military Readiness Enhancement Act

On April 5, 2005, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican member of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations became a cosponsor of the bill, joining Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Jim Kolbe of Arizona (both House Republicans) and 70 Democrats in sponsoring the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would end Don't Ask, Don't Tell. "We've tried the policy. I don't think it works. And we've spent a lot of money enforcing it," she said. "We investigate people. Bring them up on charges. Basically wreck their lives... People who've signed up to serve our country. We should be thanking them." She called arguments against gay people serving openly "the same kind of talk we heard about women [and blacks]."

"The odds [of passage] are very small, unless the top military brass would embrace it," Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat said, comparing the odds to the chances of snow in South Florida. Still, Ros-Lehtinen says she will always support for the bill. [2]

Situation outside the United States

Main article: List of Sexual orientation and military service

Most other Western military forces have now removed policies excluding individuals of other sexual orientations (with strict policies on sexual harassment). The U.K. armed forces lifted its ban in 2000.


More generally, "Don't ask, don't tell" describes any instance in which one person must keep their sexual orientation and any related attributes a secret, including not speaking about their family and a heterosexual person would be uncomfortable hearing it but deliberately lying would be undesirable. Applicable statements would be "I do not wish to know," or after being told "I would rather not have known it."


  • Butler, Judith (1997). Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415915880.
  • Shilits, Randy (1994). Conduct Unbecming: A History of Gays and Lesbians in the Armed Forces.

External links