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The Policy Concerning Homosexuals in the United States Military


Symbolic Tribute Protests 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' Polic
Win McNamee / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images
Updated May 28, 2014

There will always be strong feelings and debates concerning the topic of homosexuals serving in the United States Military. One thing is certain, things have changed. For better or worse? That is up for the individual to decide. In 2010, I wrote this article in order to give my readers some history, current laws, and possible future policies concerning "gays in the military." Back then, changing our laws to include the right to serve in the military if you were openly gay was a huge deal. Now that everything is said and done, the topic is not as heated. I think people are more concerned now with the more important topics of the military, such as Afghanistan, Iran, and our Nation's future.

Throughout its history, the US Military has had an inconsistent policy when it came to homosexuals in the military. Prior to World War II, there was no written policy barring homosexuals from serving, although sodomy was considered a crime by military law ever since Revolutionary War times. In 1778, Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin became the first soldier to be drummed out of the Continental Army for sodomy.

Homosexuality - a Mental Condition

During World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the military defined homosexuality as a mental defect, and officially barred homosexuals from serving based on medical criteria. However, when personnel needs increased due to combat, the military developed a habit of relaxing its screening criteria. Many homosexual men and women serviced honorably during these conflicts. Unfortunately, these periods were short-lived. As soon as the need for combat personnel decreased, the military would involuntarily discharge them.

A Complete Ban of Gays in the Military

It wasn't until 1982 that the Department of Defense officially put in writing that “homosexuality was incompatible with military service,” when they published a DOD directive stating such. According to a 1992 report by the Government Accounting Office, nearly 17,000 men and women were discharged under this new directive during the 1980s.

The Birth of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

By the end of that decade, reversing the military's policy was emerging as a priority for advocates of gay and lesbian civil rights. Several lesbian and gay male members of the military came out publicly and vigorously challenged their discharges through the legal system.

By the beginning of 1993, it appeared that the military's ban on gay personnel would soon be overturned.

President Clinton announced that he intended to keep his campaign promise by eliminating military discrimination based on sexual orientation. But, this didn't sit well with the Republican-controlled Congress. Congressional leaders threatened to pass legislation that would bar homosexuals from serving, if Clinton issued an executive order changing the policy.

After lengthy public debate and congressional hearings, the President and Senator Sam Nunn, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reached a compromise which they labeled Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue. Under its terms, military personnel would not be asked about their sexual orientation and would not be discharged simply for being gay. However having sexual relations, or displaying romantic overtures with members of the same sex, or telling anyone about their sexual orientation is considered "homosexual conduct" under the policy and is a basis for involuntary discharge. This is now known as the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, and is the current Department of Defense Policy.

Changing Times

At the time, most military leaders and young enlisted folk (who were forced to live in the barracks with a roommate) took a conservative view about allowing gays to serve openly in the military. I shared these concerns, and -- in fact -- penned the tounge-and-cheek article, Gays in the Military -- the Logistics, when I first took over the About.com US Military site in 1999. However, times change.....so does the military.....and so have my views. Most junior enlisted (the one's who have to live in the barracks), today, see nothing wrong with homosexuality and would not be bothered by serving with those they know to be gay. Today, almost everyone gets a single room (with no roommate) following basic training and job school. In those few situations where military personnel share living accommodations (such as deployments and ships), it is generally several military members living together. I sincerely doubt there will be many cases of someone inappropriately "hitting on" anyone else around 49 or so witnesses.

The Future of Gays in the Military - from Rod's "crystal ball"

No one really knows exactly what the future holds, however, back in May of 2010, the following was my best guess:

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is going to go away, and gays will be allowed to serve openly in the military. That much is clear -- the writing is on the wall. The question is, "when?" That is still uncertain. Like President Clinton before him, President Obama has promised to overturn the law, and allow gays to openly serve. However, like President Clinton, President Obama is facing stiff opposition. Senior military leaders and many Congressional leaders oppose any change. Obama is taking a different track than Clinton did. Instead of facing the issue head-on, and risking a serious challenge (thereby making several political enemies), the President has put the issue on a "back-burner," to leave for a later time.

Don't expect this time to be soon. The President has shown a propensity to side with senior Pentagon officials when it comes to military issues since he's taken office. His decision to revive military trials for some prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and to slow down his original plan for withdrawal of troops from Iraq are just two cases in point.

I suspect the Obama administration will continue to "study the issue," for some time to come. At a time of his choosing (at the best "political time"), he will make his first move. I suspect that move will not be an attempt to overturn the policy, but rather an executive order to the Pentagon to simply stop homosexual discharges, while leaving the original policy on the books. Later, he can negotiate a permanent change with Congressional leaders.....

I wasn't too far off!

The "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010"

In December of 2010, the House & Senate voted in favor to repeal the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell." President Obama then signed it into law December 22, 2010. Well, some may wish to know what exactly is a "repeal?" A repeal is the action of revoking or annulling a law or congressional act. Our Nation decided that by 2011, homosexuals would no longer fear discharge from the military by admitting to their sexual preference. In fact, today, homosexuals have the freedom to serve in our armed forces openly. You can read more about the findings Congress has implemented concerning homosexuals and our armed forces here.

Over 13,000 service men & women were discharged for being gay while the don't ask, don't tell policy was in effect. The repeal has prompted many to try and reenlist. Many men and women whom have been serving came "out of the closet" on various media such as you tube. Many organizations and groups supporting gay and lesbian military members surfaced and have even organized official public gatherings with the military.

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