How Don’t Ask’ Fails The Military

Posted March 9, 2009 at 4:48pm

During his high-profile talk at Columbia University two years ago, students and faculty alike laughed when they heard Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claim that there aren’t any gay people in Iran.

Immediately following the talk, Columbia, albeit a liberal bastion, buzzed with Ahmadinejad’s claim. A few days later, a consensus breezed through the campus that Ahmadinejad’s assertion was impossible. Surely enough, the New York Times published a piece about gays living in Iran.

In “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America,— author Nathaniel Frank anchors his argument about the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell— policy in a similar absurdity. He argues that through Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, some military officials pretend everybody is straight. They pretend homosexuality doesn’t exist.

That, of course, cannot be the case, in the same way it can’t be possible for Iran to be gay-free.

In his nearly 300 pages of advocacy that Frank said took a decade to complete, the author castigates military leaders and lawmakers for basing policy on prejudice, ignorance and intolerance. Frank says the policy “prohibits conduct that gay people, by definition, engage in, while allowing straight men and women who engage in the same conduct to serve.—

He then chronicles the origins of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to show that since its inception in the early ’90s during the early stages of the Clinton administration, the policy was founded on false premises and a poor understanding of gays. He also chronicles the history of gays in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War.

Frank, a veteran journalist from New York, is known for his political coverage. Throughout his career he has tackled the developments and ironies of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

One such irony is that the policy has had a damaging effect on the armed forces. Instead of creating a safe haven for gays and lesbians to serve while in the closet, the policy has cost millions of dollars to enforce and has led to the removal of capable service members in “mission critical— roles.

Frank spent years at the Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara to research this work, and he builds on scholarship produced by other journalists and think tanks, such as the RAND Corp. Frank dissects a report published by RAND at the time the policy was constructed, which asserted that a person’s sexual orientation was “not germane— to military service. “Sexual orientation is a personal and private matter, and homosexual orientation is not a bar to service entry or continued service,— the report stated.

Frank also notes the opposite end of the spectrum in the political fight, by citing a 1984 Washington, D.C., circuit court ruling, which upheld the gay ban in the Navy. There, the court stated: “The Navy is not required to produce social science data or the results of controlled experiments to prove what common sense and common experience demonstrate.— Frank argues that this “common sense— approach is what is preventing progress.

At the center of Frank’s research is Charlie Moskos, a military sociologist who was the architect of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Frank notes that Moskos was entrusted with addressing homosexuality because he was also integral in devising the strategy to incorporate African-Americans into the armed services. Throughout the book, Frank is highly critical of Moskos, disqualifying him because of his severe lack of knowledge of gay and lesbian issues, quoting Moskos as saying: “We do separate men and women in the military in intimate living conditions. If you had open gays, you’d probably have the same harassment problems as you do among men and women.—

Frank concludes that the armed services have to repeal the policy and change their perception of homosexuality in order for the military and the country to thrive in this century. Military leaders acting out of prejudice or out of legitimate concern for the welfare of the parties involved must realize the antiquity of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. When other countries — including members of NATO — have modernized their policies to allow gays to serve openly, Frank asks, why hasn’t the U.S. done likewise?

The answer lies in the political struggle. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell proved to be a devastating blow to former President Bill Clinton early in his first term. It hurt his relationship with the military brass. Everybody agrees President Barack Obama should be more cautious than Clinton. However, Obama pledged to revoke the policy, and advocates such as Frank argue that times have changed.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) introduced legislation last week to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and momentum appears to be on her side.

That raises the question: How much support will opponents have to garner in their effort to preserve the policy?