As one of the most controversial federal laws in American history, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy employed by the U.S. military has been the subject of intense debate since its inception, becoming a maelstrom during the term of President Barack Obama following his campaign promise to repeal the legislation.
In two landmark votes on December 15 and 18, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, respectively, voted in support of a statute which would repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. On Dec. 22, President Barack Obama signed the statute into law, ending the 17-year ban on openly homosexual servicemembers.
Though military discrimation against homosexuals existed as long ago as the Revolutionary War, the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950 laid down a formal policy which required discharge of any known homosexual servicemembers. The policy existed for several decades, but in 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton campaigned on the promise that he would endeavor to allow all Americans to serve in the military, regardless of sexual orientation. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy emerged as a compromise between President Clinton’s campaign promise and generally Republican opposition, supported by anti-LGBTQ public outcry.
Amidst the turmoil of the 1993 debate, the National Defense Research Institute released a study which argued that lifting the ban on homosexual servicemembers could be done with little to no damage to army recruitment statistics. Put simply: the report argued that the ban on LGBTQ persons serving in the military was unnecessary.
While President Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” was supported as a step forward by those in the LGBTQ community, it still failed to allow the service of openly gay servicemembers.
The recent movement to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” came amidst a tide of public outcry against the policy. Then presidential candidate Barack Obama’s promise to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” garnered much support. After his election, President Obama restated his desire to repeal the policy and was immediately followed by statements of support made by both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen, both of whom would be responsible for implementing and approving a potential repeal.
Debate turned immediately to Congress. Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was one of the most outspoken opponents of a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“At this time, we should be inherently cautious about making any changes that would affect our military, and what changes we do make should be the product of careful and deliberate consideration,” McCain told reporters. While the Republican Senator did not say that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should never be repealed, he frequently articulated his view that the current political and military climate would be inappropriate for a repeal. Numerous Republicans agreed, saying that a time when our troops were overseas in significant numbers would be inappropriate for a drastic change in policy. Citing a letter signed by numerous military officials, Senator McCain argued that allowing openly homosexual persons to serve in the military would detract from overall morale and compromise the readiness of the United States military.
On the other hand, many members of Congress argued strongly for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” During its existence, roughly 14,000 servicemembers were discharged due to homosexual accusations, a figure which proponents of repeal used to strengthen their argument. Many Democrats argued that the ban on LGBTQ servicemembers undermined the military’s goal by forcing its members to lie. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) argued fiercely for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” saying, “I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.”
Though Republicans attempted to filibuster the movement to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the bill eventually passed both Senate and House debate during the lame duck session of Congress. While the effects of such a repeal on military readiness and unit morale remain to be seen, President Obama’s leadership of Congress to a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has generated general approval, especially from the nation’s LGBTQ population.