New Calls for Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Policy's 10th Anniversary Triggers SLDN Protest
Print Date: 
February 14, 2003
Washington Blade
Rhonda Smith

Leaders at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network marked the 10th anniversary of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy by unveiling a five-year strategic plan they said could help repeal "the last great wall of anti-gay discrimination in our country."

The SLDN plan calls for educating members of Congress, Pentagon officials and other decision-makers about why "'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' harms national security and offends basic notions of equality." The regulation took effect in late 1993.

"Ten years, more than 7,500 discharges and a quarter billion dollars after implementation of this policy, we have a mountain of evidence showing the real damage of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of SLDN in Washington, D.C. "Harassment and discharges continue unabated and, just as important, talented Americans continue to be turned away from service to our country."

Steve E. Ralls, an SLDN spokesperson, said, "We're going to be much more proactive in our outreach to members of Congress and the Bush administration."

A White House spokesperson recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that President Bush "supports the policy and believes it is up to the nation's military leaders to determine the best way to implement that policy."

SLDN officials hired Christopher Neff in November as the policy associate in charge of coordinating the organization's outreach efforts on Capitol Hill. Ralls said the strategic plan also puts into place a revitalized focus on grassroots organizing at a level SLDN has not done before.

C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said talented Americans continue to be turned away from U.S. military service because of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy.

New Report Criticizes Policy

SLDN is not alone in renewing calls for an end to the ban. The New York-based Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organization in the nation, released a report last month titled "Uniform Discrimination: The 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Policy of the U.S. Military."

The report cites in particular the U.S. Army's discharge between October 2001 and September 2002 of 10 trained linguists based on their sexual orientation, seven of whom are proficient in Arabic.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Michigan-based Center for Military Readiness, a public policy organization that supports barring gay men and women from the military, endorsed the discharges.

"The most important question to ask about the homosexual students dismissed from the Defense Language Institute is why they were allowed to enter in the first place," Center officials said in a written statement. "For many months, they occupied spaces that could have been offered to eligible trainees who could have been learning Arabic, Korean, Farsi, and other languages valuable in the war on terrorism. Instead, DLI tolerated a situation that was an unconscionable waste of time and resources."

The Center for Military Readiness would like the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" regulations eliminated, Donnelly said, and a 1993 statute enforced that fully excludes gay people from the military. The center also supports restoring a question that military recruits once had to answer on applications about their sexual orientation.

The 54-page Human Rights Watch report notes that although the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was intended to allow gay, lesbian and bisexual service members to remain in the military, discharges have steadily increased since its adoption by Congress in 1993.

SLDN figures show that from 1994 to 2001, more than 7,800 men and women were discharged from the military based on actual or perceived homosexuality. Figures from the U.S. Department of Defense show that 8,529 men and women have been discharged under the policy since 1993. A spokesperson for the Department of Defense said this week that discharges related to violating "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" have remained steady for more than four years, "at just six tenths of 1 percent of all discharges" from 1998 to 2001.

When asked to respond to critics who contend that the policy is discriminatory and harmful to gay military members, an unidentified Defense Department official noted in a written statement that the department's policy is prescribed in law.

"In passing that law, Congress expressed concern about risks to morale, good order and discipline, and unit readiness," the official said. "The department continues to work tirelessly to administer that law in a manner that is both fair and consistent [and] remains committed to treating all service members with dignity and respect, while fairly enforcing the
provisions of the law."

SLDN officials said in 2001, a record 1,256 military members were dismissed, which was almost double the homosexual separation rate of 730 in 1992, before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was enacted. They also noted that the vast majority of men and women discharged because of the policy earn $12,000 to $20,000 annually.

Aaron Belkin, a political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, a think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will be difficult to overturn in the current political and legal climate. (Osburn of SLDN is a member of the center's board of advisers.)

Ralls at SLDN said officials there predict it would take 10 years to get the policy repealed.

"Our plan is to put in place the grassroots program and outreach and education programs that will be necessary for Congress to take another look at the policy," he said.

A major obstacle, Belkin said, is that military leaders do not want the policy changed. He also noted that courts and members of Congress have expressed reluctance to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"We don't know how long it will take to get it overturned because the ban is locked in place by the courts, which have not signaled any willingness to do anything about the policy," Belkin said.

"The Republicans always appear to be unfair to gay people when they talk about this issue," he said, "and Democrats look weak on defense when they bring it up."

As a result, Belkin said, neither political party is pushing to have the policy repealed.

Nevertheless, Belkin said proponents of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" recently appeared to be on the defensive about the policy for the first time. "Because of the story about the linguists, the public now understands in a much more profound way how the ban is hurting the military," he said.

The discharge of the linguists prompted members of Congress and the media to complain late last year that the Army was expelling qualified service members at a time when it faces a severe shortage, especially of Arab linguists, as the nation prepares for possible military action in the Middle East.

Donnelly at the Center for Military Readiness disagreed.

"Gay activists and their allies in the media are trying to wrap their radical agenda in the flag of 'national security' and 'military necessity.' This should fool no one who supports the armed forces," she said in a written statement. "The Department of Defense has a critical need for expert linguists and translators who are eligible to serve, not men or women who are not. In the interests of national security, social engineering must be brought to an end."

The Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military is working with the Liberty Education Forum, a gay-friendly organization launched by the Log Cabin Republicans, on a study that evaluates "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and addresses whether the policy has enhanced or undermined the U.S. military in the past decade. It is scheduled to be available next month, Belkin said, noting that the report's authors conclude that the policy has hurt the military in five ways.

The report states that the U.S. armed forces have been hurt by the policy because of a loss of knowledgeable and talented service members, the ban's financial costs, and the wedge it has caused between the public and the military. Belkin said this wedge exists because studies show most of the public supports lifting the ban.

In addition, the study concludes that the ban undermines the military because it contributes to violence against women and creates a climate of fear in the workplace. Officials at SLDN and the Human Rights Watch said, because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," female service members are subjected to "lesbian-baiting" in the military, which involves their male counterparts labeling them as lesbians if they rebuff their sexual advances or do not act "feminine" enough.

The Human Rights Watch report states that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has had a much greater adverse impact on women than men. In 2001, women comprised about 14 percent of the armed forces but 30 percent of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" discharges, it states, based on information provided by SLDN. The report also states that the overall discharge rate of women under the policy has been increasing.

In the past decade, 24 countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and Israel have eliminated restrictions on gays serving in the military without impairing their armed forces' effectiveness, the Human Rights Watch report states.

The SLDN's five-year strategic plan includes six goals, the first of which is to lift the ban and allow gay military members to serve open and honestly. Other goals include providing free legal services to military members harmed by the policy and protecting men and women from harassment based on perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Additional goals involve advocating for policies and practices that improve service members' lives, supporting service member and veteran pride as gay persons, and strengthening organizational capacity "to assure the freedom to serve in the most cost-effective, strategic fashion."

For More Information

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network
P.O. Box 65301
Washington, D.C. 20035-5301

Center for Military Readiness
P.O. Box 51600
Livonia, MI 48151

Human Rights Watch
350 Fifth Ave., 34th Floor
New York, NY 10118-3299

Rhonda Smith can be reached at