Don't Ask, Don't Be

A Houston-area man leads the fight against the ban on gays in the military

Prior to 1993, the military decided that homosexuality was incompatible with military service. Therefore, potential recruits were asked upon application if they were gay. If they said yes, they were denied entry.

But shortly after he took office, President Bill Clinton announced his intention to end the gay ban and implemented an interim executive policy that suspended the up-front questioning of sexual orientation. Congress convened a series of hearings on whether gays were a threat to unit cohesion and privacy. Meanwhile, Clinton commissioned legal and military experts, most notably Northwestern University professor Charles Moskos, to draft a compromise, in case the plan to abolish the ban failed.

The result was a more antigay legislative and military stance than ever before.

Donnelly: Gays can serve their country "in some other 
way."
Courtesy of Elaine Donnelly
Donnelly: Gays can serve their country "in some other way."
In 2001, the army thought comics would best explain 
DADT. Click here to enlarge.
In 2001, the army thought comics would best explain DADT. Click here to enlarge.

What was previously a military policy banning gays from service suddenly became a federal statute. In the statute, Congress states that homosexuality is incompatible with military service. It goes on to define a homosexual as a person with a "propensity" to engage in homosexual conduct. Conduct includes stating that one is a homosexual, and engaging in any bodily contact that a "reasonable person would understand to demonstrate a propensity or intent" to satisfy same-sex sexual desires.

The statute explained that the presence of gays in the military "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 statute required the Department of Defense to implement regulations reflecting the law. In its "sense of Congress" statement, which is not part of the statute, Congress suggested that the DoD continue the interim policy of not asking about sexual orientation up front. This created a loophole allowing gays to covertly serve in the military, in direct violation of the law Congress had just created.

Clinton, Moskos and other supporters of the policy thought they had scored a coup by changing the military ban from one of orientation to one of conduct. The idea was that as long as two guys or two gals refrained from having sex in the middle of the barracks, they'd pretty much be left alone. Yet the statute's "propensity" clause ties orientation to conduct and makes it much easier for commanding officers to discharge alleged homosexuals.

Under the military's policy, the act of two people of the same sex holding hands can be considered akin to sodomy. So is saying "I am gay." It's up to the discretion of the commanding officer, so stories abound about the one who looks the other way and the one who investigates a woman who hangs up a Melissa Etheridge poster.

Those accused are provided the chance to prove they do not have a propensity to engage in homosexual acts. Because it is virtually impossible to prove a negative, much less to prove that something won't happen in the future, these defenses usually fail. The few known successful defenses hinge not on denying the statement, hand-holding, Etheridge-posting, etc., but on proving how hetero one is. One successful case, described in Janet Halley's 1999 book Don't, describes an accused homosexual who brought his wife before the review board to say how good her husband was in the sack.

The policy also allows what is known as the "queen for a day" rule. If an accused homosexual can prove that "such conduct is a departure from the member's usual and customary behavior," he or she can remain in service.

An illustration of what is known as DADT, then, is this: A male private is seen holding hands with a male civilian. The commanding officer now has reason to believe that his private has the propensity to sodomize the civilian. If it goes before a review board, the private's best bet is to bring in at least one woman to talk about what a masterful lover he is. Or, he could risk the queen-for-a-day loophole and say he had never before held any man's hand and never will again.

The concept described in that paragraph has cost the United States military approximately $190 million over ten years.


"I always paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democracy," Charles Moskos says from his office at Northwestern University: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell is the worst system possible -- except for any other."

Moskos, 72, is the sociologist credited with drafting the 1993 military compromise.

"There are, like, three times in life where you're forced to live with people you might not otherwise choose. One is the military, the other is jail, and the third is freshman dorm," he says. He later adds, "Should privacy be respected? That's the question…To force people of different sexual orientations…to live in intimate quarters, to me, is wrong."

Moskos was drafted into the army in the late '50s, where he served under a "discreet" gay captain. He agrees with the idea that gays have always served in the military, often with distinction. But having straight and gay men share a shower is akin to having men and women lathering up together.

As he says, "Prudes have rights."

Moskos focuses on the privacy argument, as opposed to the "unit cohesion" argument, which theorizes that straight and gay service members cannot work well with each other.

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