Equality in the US Military: Time to End Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The policy of institutionalised discrimination against gay and lesbian US service personnel is unjust and detrimental to military effectiveness. It is time for US policymakers to end this policy of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' and join the norms of other Western militaries.

By Jonathan Hopkins and John Nagl for RUSI.org

In 1991, while discussing a burgeoning movement to end the ban on gays in the military, the American magazine Time reported, 'near military bases, vice-squad detectives routinely help military police hunt down soldiers at gay and lesbian bars. Interrogations can last 12 hours, during which suspects are threatened with exposure to their parents, dishonorable discharge, and in the case of some lesbians, loss of custody of their children. Many suspects are pressured to reveal the names of other gay servicemen and women.'[1]

Two years later, Former US President Bill Clinton attempted to end the ban altogether. However, facing uproar from the military and conservative legislators, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (DADT) was codified into law in 1993 as an imperfect compromise. 

The measure stated that gay service personnel '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.'  Only if gay service personnel effectively kept their orientation secret would they be permitted to serve.[2] While most NATO countries, Australia, and Israel have long moved beyond their bans, in the United States this law remains intact.[3]

President Obama has promised to repeal the law, with support from Admiral Mike Mullen, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, speaking to the Senate Armed Services, said 'No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.'[4]

The Law

The DADT legislation eliminated many of the witch hunts while leaving the balance of the prohibition on gays intact. The vice squads disappeared, service personnel are no longer asked about their orientation upon entrance into the service, and those found to be gay generally receive an honourable discharge. 

What remains, however, is still government-endorsed discrimination: it is still illegal to be gay in the military. 'Homosexual conduct' when off duty and away from other  service personnel  is still a violation which can result in dismissal. Homosexuals who want to serve must do whatever it takes to keep their orientation secret, which can include lying about where they were on the weekend, why they're always alone at unit functions, or 'pronoun switching' if they ever have to speak of their significant other. The policy imprisons gay service personnel in a persistent state of fear. For them, quality of performance may have no bearing on their retention in the military. Their career could always be terminated the next day by somebody who finds out the truth about them.

The Cost

Since 1993, the equivalent of an American Army division has been discharged under the terms of DADT (over 14,000 servicemen and women), and discharges continue at the rate of at least 400 per year.[5]  In 2006, a panel convened by the University of California assessed the financial cost of discharge and retraining replacements at $363 million over ten years.[6]

We believe the costs are much higher: there is no dollar figure on the damage that this policy inflicts on the institution and its own people, nor to the loss in quality that ensues.  While over 14,000 gay service personnel have been forcibly discharged, that statistic ignores the thousands of otherwise committed Americans who have chosen of their own accord to depart the service simply because they could not live under a policy that undermines a key aspect of personal happiness. 

We each know of several combat veterans who have left the Army they loved and fought for (and in some cases bled for) because they could not continue to serve under these conditions.  While these capable Americans leave the service under pressure, different Americans are enlisted to fill the gap. In 2006, the US armed forces admitted 34,000 personnel on 'moral waivers,' issued to personnel with police records, including hundreds of convicted felons.[7] Collateral damage from the policy even affects officer training programmes. America's Ivy League universities ban officer training programs from their campuses due to incompatibility of DADT with their anti-discrimination policies. As a result, the military is further distanced from society and some promising officer candidates are not influenced to join the service.[8]

The DADT policy undermines the most critical values of the institution Americans most respect.[9] All military forces hold certain fundamental norms and values. Some of these norms are truly timeless and universal; courage in battle, teamwork, trust, and integrity transcend time and place. However, gay service personnel serving under the DADT policy are forced to violate the timeless military values of integrity and trust. In order to cover up a perceived difference, the rules mandate that members of the military lie, cover up, fabricate stories, and change pronouns in a very close-knit work-environment just to survive. When such story-telling raises eyebrows, it actually undermines trust. The story-telling itself is a habitual violation of service members' integrity. This is no way to run a military.

The cost to core institutional values of the DADT policy is important, but the most painful cost is to individual values. Even though American military leaders often list their priorities as 'mission first, people always,' these leaders of the estimated 65,000 gay service personnel who remain in the military[10] must betray this priority to comply with the law. 

Gay service personnel may have internalised the value of honour, but living a daily lie due to government fiat eats them from within. They can handle the fear that descends in battle, but are being forced to fear their own organisation. They are employed to destroy the enemy, but find they are also psychologically destroying themselves. They are stigmatised by their own service as less equal or valuable than their straight counterparts. Paranoid and alone, they must become practiced in subterfuge of military policies. They can feel like outlaws in their own ranks, even if they perform as well as anybody in the ranks. Yet so committed are they to the values of the military that they will endure all of this just to serve their country and lead her soldiers. Believing there is no higher calling, they stay in uniform while denying their most basic nature. The ultimate result is a conflict between seemingly immutable characteristics of personal identity and a stated value of the military: that sexuality determines military effectiveness. 

To What End?

The DADT policy is cloaked in the explanation that gays serving openly would undermine unit cohesion.  This explanation has a tired and tragic history: it was used in the 1940s to argue against desegregation of the military.  The US War Department stated in 1940 that segregation 'has proven satisfactory over a long period of years,' and only 4% of southern soldiers 'favored equal PX privileges for their black comrades.'[11]  An overwhelming majority (88%) of white service personnel in the 1940s preferred to keep the armed forces segregated.[12] The senior leadership supported such views. The Adjutant General of the Army stated that 'The Army is not a sociological laboratory,' while General George Marshall admonished, 'Experiments within the Army in the solution of social problems are fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline, and morale.'[13] The DADT story is the same: because some in the military are unwilling to accept the inclusion of a minority, the institution instead endorses and enforces that discrimination as a matter of course in the name of unit cohesion. 

But there is no evidence that supports the claimed danger to cohesion.[14] A Moradi and Miller study for Armed Forces and Society in April 2010 demonstrated this clearly. First, a 2006 Zogby International poll found that a representative sample of 545 service personnel found that only 28per cent of the military agreed or strongly agreed with the current DADT ban.[15] Furthermore, 74per cent of the military sample stated they were either 'very comfortable' or 'somewhat comfortable' around gays or lesbians. Only 13per cent were uncomfortable and 4 per cent 'very uncomfortable.'[16] Polling also found 20%per cent of US soldiers knew of a fellow gay service-member in their unit, half of whom said the person was widely known in the unit to be gay. Most importantly, Moradi and Miller's analysis of the data found no linkage between knowledge of gay service personnel and unit cohesion or readiness. The determining factors are as they had always been: quality of officer and NCO leadership, training, and equipment. [17]

This is consistent with the RAND Corporation and US General Accountability Office studies of other militaries and similarly-structured organisations.[18] When Aaron Belkin surveyed over 100 military experts within Israel, Canada, Australia, and the UK, he found that they unanimously concurred there were no indications their 'decisions to lift their gay bans undermined military performance, readiness, or cohesion, [or] led to increased difficulties in recruiting or retention.'  Australian Commodore R. W. Gates reflected the views of many others when he called the rule change 'an absolute non-event.'  This is despite initial outcries in all of the above nations that a change in policy would have a ruinous effect, similar to what is going on in some quarters of the United States now.[19]

Currently, the policy is fundamentally at odds with the views of the American public as well - similar to the views of Britons in 1999.[20]   The most recent American Gallup polling shows 70 per cent support for gays serving openly in the military, with support as high as 79 per cent among 18-29 year olds - the standard age of most military service personnel. In fact, no identifiable sub-group shows majority opposition to gays serving openly.[21]

This in fact implies that the military is indoctrinating soldiers to be more discriminatory as they adopt military norms and values. Zogby polling showed those who had received DADT training in the military more supportive of the ban than those who had not, as were senior NCOs and officers.[22] This is perhaps reflected in a non-scientific 2010 Military Times poll showing 51per cent of service personnel opposed to gays serving openly, down from 65 per cent in 2004.[23] It is worth noting that foreign militaries also recorded significant opposition before over-turning gay bans, with no negative results.

Time to End an Injustice

Over the past year, both houses of Congress have been spurred to action, writing amendments to the National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA) which would allow the DADT gay ban to be overturned.  If passed by the Senate, the proposed legislation would end the DADT policy contingent upon completion of a Pentagon review in December and a stipulation from the President and Secretary of Defense that overturning the ban would not harm the military. However, in September, passage of the NDAA was delayed in the Senate when only 56 senators voted to end debate on the bill, short of the required supermajority of 60 needed to overcome filibuster. Now action on the bill is delayed until after the November elections at the earliest. Meanwhile, two federal court cases have ruled against the military ban.  In one, Judge Virginia Phillips is considering issuing a permanent nationwide injunction against DADT discharges, stating DADT 'actually serve[s] to impede military readiness and unit cohesion rather than further these goals.'[24]  However, neither court case is likely to end the ban immediately, as they are both subject to appeal to higher courts. Thus, the problem of DADT remains unresolved and gay service personnel continue to get discharged.

It appears very likely that DADT will end soon, either as a result of court decisions or, better, through legislative repeal.  There remain questions on how to implement the policy change. This issue deserves careful consideration, a point on which the Secretary of Defense agrees.[25] Challenging questions remain regarding training of the force to comply with any new policy, as well as dependent benefits. This last issue is difficult due to the fact that rules vary by state regarding same sex unions, and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibits recognition of marriage between same-sex couples at the federal level. Recommendations on these issues will be presented by the Department of Defense in December; their publication should mark the beginning of the final chapter of the injustice and detriment to military performance that DADT has become. 

Over 25 countries [26], including most of the world's largest military powers, have neutralised this tension between personal identity and the military's mission by allowing people to serve based upon demonstrated capability to do their job without regard for an unrelated characteristic of their identity. There is only one solution to issues of discrimination: meritocracy, fairly applied. All able Americans who choose to serve their nation in a time of war should have the right to do so with integrity and honour. This course of action is best for the nation, right for the military, and simple justice for so many good Americans willing to give up so much for a nation they believe in - if just their nation will believe in them.


Jonathan Hopkins is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He graduated fourth in his West Point class and then participated in three, one-year deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader and company commander, earning three Bronze Stars including one for valor. Hopkins had been selected for early promotion to Major before being discharged in August 2010 for being gay. He has recently written for the New York Times At War blog on the subject, and is a spokesman for OutServe, an organisation of active duty gay and lesbian members of the US military. 

John Nagl is a retired U.S. Army officer who served in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom and helped write the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Now President of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC, Nagl taught Hopkins at West Point and has served with several other gay officers in and out of combat. He serves on the Advisory Board of the RUSI Journal.

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the RUSI.


[1] Nancy Gibbs et al., 'Defense: Marching Out of The Closet,' Time, August 19, 1991, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,973631-1,00.html.

[2]'United States Code: Title 10, §654. Policy concerning homosexuality in the armed forces,' available at www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/10/654.html#b.

[3]'Nations allowing gays to serve openly in military,' Palm Center, http://www.palmcenter.org/research/nations%20allowing%20service%20by%20openly%20gay%20people

[4] Elisabeth Bumiller, 'Top Defense Officials Seek to End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'.' New York Times, February 2, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/03/us/politics/03military.html?ref=dont_ask_dont_tell.

[5]'Freedom to Serve,' Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, http://dont.stanford.edu/commentary/9.sldn.2003.pdf, for statistics from 1994 to 2002. See Bryan Bender, 'Gays being kicked out of military at steady rate,'  Boston Globe¸ May 19, 2009, http://www.boston.com/news/politics/politicalintelligence/2009/05/gays_being_kick.html, for years 2004 to 2008, and 'Final Discharge Numbers Released for FY2009,' Servicemembers United, April 10, 2010, available at http://servicemembersunited.org/?p=2419.

[6] 'Report: 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' costs $363M,' USA Today, February 14, 2006, http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-02-14-dont-ask-report_x.htm.

[7] Elana Schor, 'US army increases use of moral waivers to meet demand for troops,' The Guardian, April 21, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/apr/21/usa1

[8]Michael Winerip, 'The R.O.T.C. Dilemma,'  New York Times, November 1, 2009, ED16,  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/01/education/edlife/01rotc-t.html and also Tracy Jan, 'Harvard links ROTC return to end of 'don't ask',' September 23, 2010, http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/09/23/harvard_links_rotc_return_to_end_of_dont_ask/

[9]Lydia Saad, 'Congress Ranks Last in Confidence in Institutions,' Gallup.com, July 22, 2010,  http://www.gallup.com/poll/141512/Congress-Ranks-Last-Confidence-Institutions.aspx.

[10]Gary Gates, 'Gay Men and Lesbians in the U.S. Military: Estimates from Census 2000,'  The Urban Institute, September 28, 2004, iii,http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/411069_GayLesbianMilitary.pdf,

[11]Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, 382

[12]Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., 'Integration of the Armed Forces: 1940-1965,' (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1985), Chapter 2, http://www.history.army.mil/books/integration/IAF-02.htm

[13]Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944,  (New York: Holt, 2007), p. 382

[14]Nathaniel Frank, 'What Does the Empirical Research Say about the Impact of Openly Gay Service on the Military?' The Palm Center, March 3, 2010, http://www.palmcenter.org/publications/dadt/what_does_empirical_research_say_about_impact_openly_gay_service_military.

[15] Bonnie Moradi and Laura Miller, 'Attitudes of Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans Toward Gay and Lesbian Service Members,' Armed Forces & Society, April 2010, 6,http://www.palmcenter.org/files/active/0/randstudy%283%29.pdf

[16] Moradi and Miller, op. cit., p. 14.

[17] Ibid., p. 16.

[18] Frank, op. cit.,

[19] Aaron Belkin, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell:Is the Gay Ban Based on Military Necessity?'  Parameters¸ 110,  available at http://www.carlisle.army.mil/usawc/parameters/Articles/03summer/belkin.pdf

[20] 'Gays in the military: The UK and US compared,' BBC News, February 2, 2010,  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8493888.stm.

[21] Lyman Morales, 'In U.S., Broad, Steady Support for Openly Gay Service Members,' Gallup, May 10, 2010, available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/127904/broad-steady-support-openly-gay-service-members.aspx#1.

[22] Moradi and Miller, op. cit., p. 11.

[23] Michael Winter, 'Military poll shows less opposition to gays serving openly,' USA Today, February 5, 2010, http://content.usatoday.com/communities/ondeadline/post/2010/02/military-poll-shows-less-opposition-to-gays-serving-openly/1

[24] Log Cabin Republicans v US (United States District Court, Central District of California, Virginia A. Phillips, September 9, 2010), 82, http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/PhillipsDecision.pdf

[25] Bumiller, op. cit.

[26] Palm Center, op.cit., in note 3: 'Nations Allowing Gays to Serve Openly in the Military'.


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