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Commemorating the Repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

September 27, 2019

September 20, 2019, marked the eighth anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT)

Don't Ask Don't Tell

U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. Photo: Chuck Kennedy, White House photographer

To commemorate this milestone in our military’s march towards equality, we’re diving into the history of DADT, what it was like to live and serve under DADT, the impact of its repeal, and what more can be done today to ensure LGBTQ military families feel supported. 

First, what was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?

DADT was a policy that barred  openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. LGBTQ members could only serve if they kept their sexual orientation a secret from the military.

Here’s a little bit of history for you:

(From History.com no less.)

  • Although the U.S. military did not officially exclude LGBTQ service members from its ranks until the mid-20th century, “homosexual acts” were grounds for dismissal as far back as the Revolutionary War.
  • In the aftermath of World War I, the military made the act of sodomy a crime subject to punishment by court-martial.
  • During World War II, many psychiatrists classified homosexuality as a mental or behavioral disorder, and potential service members underwent psychiatric screening as a part of the enlistment process.
  • In 1942, military regulations began listing homosexuality as an excludable characteristic for the first time.
  • Despite this ban, hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian men and women continued to serve in the military over the course of the next several decades – keeping silent about their sexual identity for fear of being discharged, losing their veterans’ benefits, or worse.

Now, here’s the path that led to DADT:

As a presidential candidate in 1992, Bill Clinton publicly supported removing the DoD’s longstanding ban on gay troops serving in the Armed Forces. Upon entering the office in 1993, however, Clinton encountered strong resistance among military leaders in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their congressional allies.

According to TIME.com, proponents of the ban on gay service members argued that admitting openly gay troops into the military would undermine unit cohesion and threaten combat effectiveness. And after six months of Senate hearings and negotiations, President Clinton signed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy into law on November 30, 1993.

The policy was presented as “a compromise between those who wanted to end the longstanding ban on gays serving in the U.S. military and those who felt having openly gay troops would hurt morale and cause problems within military ranks.” (TIME.com)

Therefore, under DADT, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans could serve in the military, so long as they kept their sexual identity a secret.

At best, ineffective. At worst, downright harmful.

While supporters of DADT welcomed it as a more liberal policy that would allow gay Americans to serve their country, LGBTQ rights activists complained that it forced these service members into secrecy, while doing little to combat the prejudice against them. Meanwhile, the military continued to discharge thousands of gays and lesbians from service. (TIME.com)

 

Stephen Peters, Director of Communications and Marketing at the Modern Military Association of America (MMAA) and Marine veteran and military spouse, told Blue Star Families:

“Going into DADT, some folks thought it was a compromise of sorts and a step in the right direction. Where in reality, it just forced people to hide their relationships – forced them into the closet – and was incredibly harmful.”

Similarly, Dixon Osburn, co-founder of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, told TIME that there was little difference between the DADT policy and previous ban: 

“They were both outright bans… You were being discharged for saying you were gay or for engaging in sexual behavior with someone of the same gender or if you married or intended to marry someone of the same gender. So the bans were exactly the same. The one in ‘93 [i.e., DADT] was worse in that it became law as opposed to just regulation.”

So much for honesty.

Former service member, Keith Meinhold, who was discharged from the Navy for admitting his sexual orientation in 1992 and subsequently reinstated after successfully challenging his dismissal in court, told TIME Magazine that he saw little difference in life for gay people between the two policies: 

“Anybody who ever served knows that [DADT was] a fresh coat of paint because the only people who were ever penalized for violations of DADT were people who told, often in very circumspect ways. No one who asked ever got punished.”

What was it like living and serving under DADT?

Stephen Peters was one of those service members who was penalized for being honest. He went on to share his story with us: 

“I grew up in a very conservative Christian home and was in college during 9/11 (probably one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the country) and when that happened, I just had a desire to serve my country – so, after college, I enlisted in the Marine Corps… Serving in the Marine Corps was the first time I was away from the conservative environment that I grew up in – an environment in which it wasn’t acceptable to be gay. I had never come out to myself, let alone to anyone else… Serving in the Marine Corps allowed me to come to grips with who I was and gave me the courage to come out. I came to the point where – having repressed who I was for so long – I didn’t want to have to lie about it anymore. I wanted to be able to live my life without having to hide who I was. So I told my company commander [something to the effect of], ‘Sir, I just re-enlisted – I want to continue to serve. I love the Marine Corps. I want to continue my career in the Corps and continue to serve my country. But I’m gay and I don’t want to hide that any longer.’ That was during DADT, which meant that I was suddenly no longer fit to serve… I was discharged not long after that.”

Additionally, Ashley Broadway-Mack, a board member at the Modern Military Association of America and military spouse, told BSF: 

“My wife, Heather, and I were together almost 14 years under DADT. With that, we had to PCS to different locations – all while having to keep our relationship very secret… Probably one of the most difficult parts of living under DADT was when we decided to start a familyI had to pretend to be Heather’s sister during our son’s birth… As you can imagine, that was extremely difficult…”

Stereotypes or cold, hard facts: is sexual orientation truly relevant to military readiness and unit cohesion?

Opponents to the military’s LGBTQ ban argued that gay troops did not undermine unit cohesion and that those opinions were based on stereotypes rather than facts.

A 1993 RAND Corporation report, which was shelved by military leaders during the 1993 Senate hearings, concluded that the sexual orientation of military personnel was “not germane” (i.e., not relevant) to military readiness.

This conclusion was reiterated in July 2004 by the American Psychological Association. The association issued a statement saying: “Empirical evidence fails to show that sexual orientation is germane to any aspect of military effectiveness including unit cohesion, morale, recruitment and retention.” (source)

“Goodbye,” old views. Hello, new attitudes and opinions:

The change in American attitudes in the decades since 1993 is well documented. For starters, in 1994, the Pew Research Center reported that 45% of Americans opposed allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. By 2010, that number had fallen to 27%.

Moreover, in February 2005, the Government Accountability Office reported that DADT cost at least $95.4 million for recruiting and at least $95.1 million for training replacements for the 9,488 troops discharged from 1994 through 2003. (source)

The moment the repeal of DADT came to fruition:

On  December 15, 2010, the House passed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. Three days later, the Senate passed this bill by a vote of 65-31. President Barack Obama signed the DADT Repeal Act into law on December 22, 2010. Implementation of the DADT repeal was completed on September 20, 2011. 

On the day that DADT was lifted, Obama stated, “As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love.” 

Don't Ask Don't Tell

Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Fast forward to five years after the repeal, Obama went on to share the following message on Facebook: 

As Commander in Chief, I have no greater responsibility than keeping Americans safe. And when it comes to defending our country, we need to draw on the talents of every American – regardless of sexual orientation.” (source)

The repeal made an impact.

After the repeal of DADT became official on September 20, 2011, it seemed to have a domino effect on other longstanding barriers within the armed forces. 

  • In 2013, the Pentagon announced that it would lift the ban on women serving in ground-combat units. 
  • In 2015, the Pentagon added sexual orientation to the Military Equal Opportunity policy for the first time, protecting gay servicemen and servicewomen from discrimination.
  • In June 2016, the military ended its ban on transgender service members, a group that, according to some estimates, may have included as many as 15,500 at the time. 

Therefore, the repeal and subsequent strides outlined above have impacted the lives of current and former LGBTQ military families. 

“I feel as though [the repeal] has had a positive impact. Now, the diversity of the military can be publicly recognized. People can come out and be their true authentic selves…I think it’s opened the door for society as a whole. More people are coming out and feeling comfortable in their own skin – especially kids who are military dependents. No matter if they come from a same-sex family or a heterosexual family, we are seeing more kids identify as LGBTQ. I think seeing service-members in uniform being their authentic selves really helps these kids come out and be who they are.” 

Ashley Broadway-Mack

“It’s been a night and day difference. No longer do you have to have LGBTQ individuals lie about who they are; hiding who they are. It’s made a dramatic difference – strengthening unit cohesion and military readiness… For most people it was just another day at work. They showed up, they did their jobs – some put pictures of their loved ones finally out on their desks – they didn’t have to hide who their families were any longer. And the sky didn’t fall, as some of the anti-equality folks wanted to claim. It was a very important day that made a big difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

Stephen Peters

Nevertheless, in March 2018, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum that banned some transgender people from U.S. military service. 

A return to DADT for the transgender community:

Despite the official repeal, the discriminatory issues for the transgender community are far from over. In fact, in the past two years, many advocates note an obvious roll-back of gains made since 1993. 

How so? Well, following the Trump administration’s attempts to block transgender people from serving in the military last year, an oddly familiar narrative has played out:

In justification of Trump’s proposed ban, currently blocked by court order pending the outcome of a series of federal lawsuits, his administration released a document stating that transgender troops could “impair unit readiness,” “undermine unit cohesion,” and “lead to disproportionate costs” — arguments reminiscent of those cited decades ago by McPeak, Nunn, and others in the debates over DADT.

Ultimately, history is repeating itself.

“Through my work in advocacy, I’ve gotten to know many transgender families, and many have become very close friends, and I know this for a fact – they have basically have had to go back into the closet… Many of these same people – for example, transgender service-members who were assigned female at birth but identify as male – have had to essentially go through DADT twice. Some of these individuals are attracted to women, so when DADT was first lifted, many perceived them to be lesbian. As time went on, they were eventually able to come out and live authentically as trans men. Now that the transgender ban has been enacted they feel as though they are re-experiencing DADT all over again.”

– Ashley Broadway-Mack

Like in 1993, however, the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank tasked initially with serving the U.S. armed forces, released its own assessment. This time, it states that allowing transgender service members would have “minimal impact on readiness and healthcare costs” — contrary to the claims made by the Trump Administration.

So, what are some of the current needs of LGBTQ military families?

Because much is left undone, we’ll leave you with this personal perspective:

“Military service organizations should stay mindful of the fact that many of our families, when they have to PCS, may move to an area that is not friendly to LGBTQ military families – especially when it’s a small military installation, like Camp Lejune, where the area around it is very conservative – or even a state where there are no protections for employment, housing, or against open discrimination. So, if you have a family going from Camp Pendleton, CA, to a place like Camp Lejeune, NC, that’s a real eye-opener. We all just need to be aware and have those conversations – making sure that we are mindful of these challenges and that we go the extra mile to make LGBTQ families feel welcome in their communities.”

– Ashley Broadway-Mack

We are here for you.

“From it seems like almost day one, Blue Star Families was one of the leaders in the military service organization community that recognized our families. BSF is there for families. They didn’t say ‘We’re there for families, but…’ BSF’s unwavering support has really helped our organizations feel like we have a front – like we have someone who has our back, someone who is empathetic to the challenges that we face.”

– Ashley Broadway-Mack

We care about you. And that’s the truth. In early 2020, we’ll be releasing our 2019 Military Family Lifestyle Survey results. But you can join Blue Star Families for free today to read through the 2018 analysis of trends related to significant shifts in military issues. We can’t wait to welcome you into our family!

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