Sexuality not a military factor
Gay and lesbian Americans have been prohibited from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces for more than 16 years by Department of Defense Directive 1304.26, popularly known as the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Issued by former President Bill Clinton's administration, it reads, in part, "Sexual orientation will not be a bar to service unless manifested by homosexual conduct. The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct, which is defined as a homosexual act, a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual, or a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender." While the directive, which prohibited the longstanding practice of conducting official investigations against enlistees suspected of being gay or lesbian, was arguably an improvement over previous policies regarding homosexuality in the military, it upheld and further legitimized the practice of stigmatizing and discharging such individuals purely on the basis of their sexual orientation. More than 13,000 gay and lesbian members of the armed forces have been undeservedly dismissed under "don't ask, don't tell" since it was instituted in 1993, including 498 last year alone.
As unreasonable and inequitable as the directive was when it was first put into effect nearly two decades ago, it seems exponentially more so today, particularly in light of the degree of public acceptance members of the gay community have since come to enjoy with regard to practically every aspect of civic life — with the notable exceptions of the rights to civil marriage and joint adoption. In any civilian line of work, a policy similar to "don't ask, don't tell" would surely be viewed as absurd, impractical and, indeed, un-American in the highest degree. I contend that it is no more justifiable to terminate soldiers because of their sexual orientation than it would be to do the same to police officers, software engineers, professional athletes, district attorneys or doctors.
Readers may be surprised to know that in this regard I am in agreement with former President Ronald Reagan, considered by many to be the paragon of the modern Conservative. After serving two terms as governor of California, Reagan worked diligently against the passage of Proposition 6, a 1978 state ballot initiative which would have made it legal for school districts to fire teachers known to be gay or lesbian, as well as those who dared to publicly proclaim support for homosexual lifestyles. If the California voters of more than 30 years ago could recognize the inherent injustice of such a discriminatory policy, why can't the Washington bureaucracy do so today? It is tragicomically ironic that a measure so obsolete as "don't ask, don't tell" endures even as three openly gay Americans hold seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Nevertheless, proponents of "don't ask, don't tell" continue to maintain that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces would dampen morale and diminish unit cohesion, thus weakening the military's ability to carry out its objectives. Military effectiveness, they contend, is more important than perceived equity. However, according to a report by the American Psychological Association's Joint Divisional Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Military Service, these claims are completely unfounded: "Empirical evidence fails to show that sexual orientation is germane to any aspect of military effectiveness including unit cohesion, morale, recruitment and retention." The fact the armed forces of many other countries — including those of Israel and 20 of the 26 North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states — allow gays and lesbians to serve openly without suffering from any demonstrable loss of effectiveness is a case in point. The APA has also shown that the "U.S. military is capable of integrating members of groups historically excluded from its ranks, as demonstrated by its success in reducing both racial and gender discrimination."
Perhaps most damning of all, however, is the distinct possibility that "don't ask, don't tell" actually decreases military effectiveness, thereby jeopardizing the satisfaction of the very goal it was created to meet. Let us first consider the 2002 discharge of nine gay military linguists from the Defense Language Institute, six of whom specialized in Arabic. At a time when the armed forces have far fewer Arabic specialists than they require, it is plain to see that "don't ask, don't tell" can actually diminish military effectiveness by mandating the dismissal of many whose abilities and talents are desperately needed. Secondly, because the directive requires that gays and lesbians in the military keep their identity secret, these individuals are likely to face much higher levels of stress and anxiety than their heterosexual counterparts, thus interfering with their ability to perform effectively in combat. Rob Smith, a gay veteran of the U.S. Army, said we must listen to those "… who survived "don't ask, don't tell" so that we can hear more personal stories about what it is like to live under the rule, the mental anguish that it causes, and the lack of trust between enlisted soldiers that it continues to foster." This past month, during his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama stated, "… this year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do." I sincerely hope that the president succeeds in doing so. As we have seen, nullifying "don't ask, don't tell" is imperative for both moral and practical reasons.
Josh Baker is a Rutgers College senior majoring in sociology.