The Policy: Overview
What Is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?”
After months of controversy, President Bill Clinton signed "don't ask, don't tell" into law on November 30, 1993. Prior to this, the U.S. military explicitly prohibited people who identified as being gays and lesbians from serving, and specifically asked recruits about their sexual orientation. Any military members suspected of being gay were often investigated, interrogated, criminally prosecuted and discharged dishonorably, and were thus denied retirement benefits.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was created as a compromise between repealing and maintaining this ban on gays in the military. The policy was amended to “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t harass” in February 2000, after Private First Class Barry Winchell was murdered in his sleep by his fellow soldiers because they suspected him of being gay.
The DADT Policy States:
“A member of the armed forces shall be separated from the armed forces under regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Defense if one or more of the following findings is made and approved…
1. That the member has engaged in, attempted to engage in or solicited another to engage in a homosexual act…
2. That the member has stated that he or she is a homosexual or bisexual, or words to that effect, unless there is a further finding… that the member has demonstrated that he or she is not a person who engages in, attempts to engage in, has a propensity to engage in or intends to engage in homosexual acts.
3. That the member has married or attempted to marry a person known to be of the same biological sex.”
It defines a “homosexual act” as “any bodily contact, actively undertaken or passively permitted, between members of the same sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desires.”
Failures of DADT
DADT did little to change existing restrictions on gay service members in the military. The policy allowed that identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual could not bar one from serving—as long as one identified privately. But the Pentagon still retained the ability to legally discharge gay, bisexual or lesbian service members for acknowledging their sexual orientation or engaging in same-sex sexual conduct.
The policy also failed to offer any protection against harassment. The military continued to investigate the family members and friends of those suspected of being gay, discharging more than 12,500 servicemembers between 1994 and 2009. (Women were disproportionately fired, totaling only 15 percent of military service members but nearly half of DADT discharges in 2007.) Almost 800 of these discharged members were considered critical specialists, including linguists, pilots and intelligence analysts—all positions for which the military was suffering a shortage. The cost of training and replacing these specialists between 1994 and 2003 is estimated to be more than 363.8 million dollars.
Facing a severe personnel crisis during wartime, the military began to lower its standards for accepting recruits to compensate for the more qualified members discharged under DADT. From 2006 to 2007, the number of moral waivers granted to Army and Marine recruits, who would otherwise be ineligible for service because of their criminal convictions, doubled. In 2006, the Army issued 511 waivers and enlisted seven soldiers convicted of rape, incest or sexual assault; three soldiers convicted of manslaughter; one convicted of kidnapping; three convicted of performing indecent acts with a child; and three convicted of making terrorist or bomb threats. That same year, 612 service members were discharged under DADT.
The Future of DADT
In the 1990s, there were several challenges against the constitutionality of DADT, but 1998’s Able v. United States firmly upheld the law. During his campaign, President Barack Obama pledged to end the policy, but the power to do so remains with Congress. As of March 2009, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 1283), which would replace DADT with a nondiscriminatory policy, still lacks Senate sponsorship and the necessary number of House votes to pass.
While repealing DADT still faces strong opposition among some active-duty military service members and the Congressional armed services committees, a 2008 poll revealed that 75 percent of Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military—a significant increase from only 57 percent in 1993.