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.