DADT in perspective

Deaniac, over at The People’s View asked me to put together some of my thoughts about the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule from the perspectives of a veteran.   So here goes.  I spent the 80’s (and a bit more on either side) wearing a uniform.  What was the military’s policy on gays?  They weren’t welcome, to put it mildly.  It was an automatic discharge, no tolerance whatsoever.   That was the official policy.  Unofficially, it was worse than that.   Whatever you think of as a homophobic environment, the military was it.  Any soldier who “came out,” or, even worse, was caught having gay sex was a target.  Speaking as someone who had soldiers he was responsible for do that, it was a serious headache.  Not because of the problems inherent with losing a soldier, or the administrative work involved with the separation proceedings,  but from trying to keep them unharmed and alive to be separated.  No, I’m not kidding.   Reliable stories abounded of “blanket parties” – where a blanket was thrown over a sleeping person, and the beatings commenced; “walked into a door,” or “fell down the stairs.”    By reliable, I mean told to me by people who had participated – and were proud of it.  That’s in addition to the “rumbles” that would go around about “doing something” when someone had come out – or was strongly suspected.  There was a common culture of acceptance of a wide range of anti-gay language and behavior.    If  you just look back at the movies from the late 70’s and early 80’s – “The Boys in Company C” is a good example of it, with  the “steers and queers” rant by the drill sergeant, which was  actually rather mild.  That’s not to say that most of the country was much better.  Sure, there were areas where gays had made significant strides, usually major cities in “Blue” states.  But they were pockets of tolerance in a much larger sea of intolerance.

That was the situation, both for the country and the military when newly-elected President Bill Clinton wanted to allow gays to serve openly in the military.   There was massive pushback against it among members of Congress, and the military was dead set against it.   I’m rather ashamed today to admit that I had a problem with it – my attitude back then was “no, no, and no fucking way!”   I was more tolerant than many people back then, but even so, I still carried the attitudes towards gays in the military that I’d picked up in the military.    Back then, the results of any survey of would have shown an overwhelming majority of military personnel would have had a serious problem with it.  Faced with that opposition, a compromise was struck:  “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”   That is, the military services would no longer ask you if you were gay, wouldn’t go out of their way to “out” you, and as long as you didn’t come out, you were fine.  Was it what the gay activists wanted?  No, but it was about all that could have been gotten at that time.

While DADT was not an optimal solution from virtually anyone’s standpoint, and in practice it had failures, it did serve a purpose.  It was a “bridge” measure.  It allowed the military to get used to the idea of gays in the military.  It was something where they knew there were gays serving, quite well in fact, but it wasn’t forced on them.  The other aspect, although that wasn’t intended, was that it allowed societal attitudes to change.   Many of the new generation of activists don’t remember – or lived through – what that past was like, and what most of the country’s attitude towards gays were like, even into the 90’s.  That has gradually shifted over the intervening years, and with it, so has the new generation of service members’ attitudes.

Now that policy is up for repeal.   Studies of the service members’  attitudes towards repeal have been conducted, and although not officially released as yet, the results are fairly widely known.  Most of the service chiefs, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense have come out for repeal.  The President has stated that he wants it repealed.   There is a building consensus that it’s time for it to go.    15 years ago,  this would not have happened, and the country wouldn’t have been for it.  I wouldn’t have been for it.    In terms of societal changes, that’s a very fast change, even though it seems “slow” to those affected.   Yes, it is time for DADT to go, and it should be repealed.  Will that mean everything will be fine for gays in the military?  No, there will still be difficulties, because there are still residual atttitudes that will have to be overcome, and it will take time for those to fade.
While many gay activists rant about how they are tired of waiting and the pace of change,  in reality, the country has changed rapidly.   But before complaining about the pace of repeal,  it helps to look back at the progress made.



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8 responses to “DADT in perspective

  1. Ebogan63

    I really appreciate you recalling what the attitudes were with regards to gays in the military and the country back in the ’70s and ’80s, and showing how far we have come as a nation towards more tolerance. As an African American, alot of the activists want to highlight this rightly, as a civil rights issue, yet the histrionics of some quarters shows me that they do not want to study or take some of the lessons of that movement with regards to this fact: change takes a bit of time, and is never perfect

    • Exactly. One of the points I tried to make here is that even repealing DADT is not going to make things “friendly” for gays in the military overnight. Just as the Civil Rights Acts didn’t automatically make things better for African-Americans, or ensure that the legal protections translated to actual protections right away. It takes time, just as it takes time for the society in general to accept things.

  2. I am like you in what attitudes I had about gays in the military. I served in the USAF from 79-85, discharging as an E-5.

    The last assignment I had I had a young troop on my flight (roughly a platoon to Arrrrrmy types 😉 ) who I strongly suspected as being gay. He was careful, for I never had to take official notice of it – thank heavens. He was a good troop. The problem is the rest of the flight lower enlisted also suspected he was gay, It got to the point where I had to have a “come to Jesus” chat with everyone but him. It was short and sweet. I told those young troops that I would visit upon them twice the abuse (verbal or physical) that any of them dared visit upon this certain troop. I said we had no proof and that I didn’t want anyone finding any – period! It was the best I could do, Ignorance is bliss.

    Unfortunately, while I was in the hospital recuperating from a surgical procedure this young troop made a really bad choice and was caught in a compromising act by our unit First Sergeant. There was nothing I could do to help or save the young man. Not to mention the “off the record” counseling I received from my First Sergeant and Flight Chief about dereliction of duty as an NCO. My troopers didn’t lie when questioned about what I told them, and I didn’t want them to. I was lucky I just got counseled,

    But what you describe as the culture of the services is true. It does amaze me how quickly those attitudes have changed..

    • I had three soldiers at various times decide to “come out,” and another two that got caught together. In only one of the cases – one of the soldiers who came out – did I have any inkling that they were gay. My “come to Jesus” talks to the other soldiers were along the lines of “Do not touch them. Do not hurt them. If anything happens to them, I will be very, very displeased. You won’t like it at all.” After which I would run to the first sergeant and beg him to get those guys the hell out of there as soon as possible.

  3. Thank you for doing this post. Perspective, perspective, perspective. As a matter of principle, I really do believe that it is always right to do right. However, what is right depends on the person, and to a degree, the time. Given the deep homophobia in the institution of the military that you describe, being out threatened their lives. Would that have been the right thing for them? As a gay man, as hard as it is for me to accept that condition of the military, I cannot deny the truth. Civil society can do things that members of the military cannot. Sometimes, civil society has to lead change. That’s what’s happening here, I think.

    And attitudes have changed fast. In the military and in civil society – and thank goodness for that. A mere 10 years ago, I was so afraid of being out, I could not join my high school’s GSA that started my senior year. Today, in my area at least, high school GSAs are blossoming. Harvey Milk could not fight for adoption rights, partnership rights, or anything like that, let alone marriage rights. He had to fight for the right of gay Californians simply to teach in schools. I suspect that when he enacted marriages in San Francisco, even Gavin Newsom didn’t imagine that a mere four years later, 48% of Californians would stand up for marriage rights, even amidst a terribly run campaign on our side on Prop 8.

    • You’re welcome. If you click on the link in “blanket party,” it takes you to a particularly notorious case in 1992 – where a sailor was beaten to death for being gay. That was the reality – not all were beaten to death, but were there beatings, hazing, and general harassment? Yes. While it may have been right to allow gays to serve openly back then, it would not have been smart. Besides the risk of life and limb that openly gay service members would have faced, the resultant discipline issues would have been a nightmare.

      I remember when C. Everett Koop was considered “brave” for stating the obvious about HIV. There were a lot of people who considered it “god’s punishment” for gays, or the “gay plague.”

      My opinion is that the most strident activists today tend to be younger and, as you pointed out, living in areas where their rights are protected. They’ve never really experienced what it was like when they were childre

  4. healthy

    What a great piece of history and of insiders information you share with us. So many people don’t know, forgot or are too young to know how it was back in the early 90s. They often don’t care to get informed and chose to remain ignorant of the facts and don’t hold back when it comes time to judge. But their judgement is based based on their feelings, not the reality of today or the past. Dismissing reality and historic facts is so “Republican”, I will never understand how in some so called “liberal” blogs, the bloggers can be so clueless.

    • I understand their feelings, and their wanting things to change. What they don’t do is acknowledge the progress that has been made. I find it disturbing that some of the liberal bloggers can’t do that – and it’s not just on gay rights.