"Don't ask, don't tell" is the common term for the policy about homosexuality in the U.S. military mandated by federal law (). Unless one of the exceptions from applies, the policy prohibits anyone who "demonstrate(s) a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts" from serving in the armed forces of the United States, because it "would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability." The act prohibits any homosexual or bisexual person from disclosing his or her sexual orientation or from speaking about any homosexual relationships, including marriages or other familial attributes, while serving in the United States armed forces.
Although disappointing to many who wanted gay servicemen and women to be able to serve openly, in 1993 it was an improvement for gays in the military. The policy requires that as long as gay or bisexual men and women in the military hide their sexual orientation, commanders are not allowed to investigate their sexuality.
More generally, "Don't ask, don't tell" has come to describe any instance in which one person must keep sexual orientation and any related attributes, including family, a secret, but where deliberate lying would be undesirable.
The success of the armed forces in pre-screening self-identified gay and bisexual people from the 1940s through 1981 remains in dispute; during the Vietnam Conflict, some men pretended to be gay in order to avoid the draft. However, a significant number of gay and bisexual men and women did manage to avoid the pre-screening process and serve in the military, some with special distinction. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Navy medical doctor Tom Dooley received national fame for his anti-Communist and humanitarian efforts in Vietnam. His homosexuality was something of an open secret in the Navy, but eventually he was forced to resign; the Navy subsequently conducted the first official study on sexual orientation and the Navy regulations and rules. The 1957 report, titled Report of the Board Appointed to Prepare and Submit Recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy for the Revision of Policies, Procedures and Directives Dealing With Homosexuals (better known as the Crittenden Report) found that gay-identified people were no more likely to be a security risk than heterosexual-identified people, and found there was no rational basis for excluding gay people from the Navy, although it stopped short of recommending a change in the regulations because of social mores.
Beyond the official regulations, gay people were often the target of various types of harassment by their fellow servicemen, designed to persuade them to resign from the military or turn themselves in to investigators. The most infamous type of such harassment was called a blanket party; during the night in the barracks, several service members first covered the face of the victim with a blanket and then committed assault, often quite severely and sometimes even fatally, as in the case of Allen R. Schindler, Jr.. When passing the "Don't ask, don't tell" bill, President Clinton cited U.S. Navy Radioman Third Class Schindler, who was brutally murdered by shipmate Terry M. Helvey (with the aid of an accomplice), leaving a "nearly-unrecognizable corpse". The introduction of "Don't ask, don't tell" with the later amendment of "don't pursue, don't harass" has officially prohibited such behavior, but reports suggest that such harassment continues.
The degree of official and unofficial attempts to separate gay people from the armed forces seems to be directly related to the personnel needs of the armed forces. Hence, during wartime, it has not been uncommon for the rules regarding homosexuality to be relaxed. Until 1981, it was the policy of all branches of the armed forces to retain, at their discretion, anyone suspected of homosexual activity, thus promoting the "queen for a day" rule, which allowed a person accused of homosexuality to remain in the armed forces if one could successfully claim that their behavior was only a singular occurrence. This especially became the case during the Vietnam War.
During the 1970s, several high-profile court challenges to the military's regulations on homosexuality occurred, with little success, and when such successes did occur it was when the plaintiff had been open about his homosexuality from the beginning or due to the existence of the "queen for a day" rule. In 1981, the Department of Defense issued a new regulation on homosexuality that was designed to ensure withstanding a court challenge by developing uniform and clearly defined regulations and justifications that made homosexual status, whether self-applied or by the military, and conduct grounds for discharge (DOD Directive 1332.14 (Enlisted Administrative Separations), January, 1981):
The directive justified the policy and removed the "queen for a day" rule that had prompted some courts to rule against the armed forces. However, the intent of the policy had also been to treat homosexuality as being akin to a disability discharge and thus ensure that anyone found engaging in homosexual activity and/or identifying as gay, would be separated with an honorable discharge. The DOD policy has since withstood most court challenges, although the United States Supreme Court has refused to weigh in on the constitutionality of the policy, preferring to allow lower courts and the United States Congress to settle the matter.
In the 1980s, many of the Democratic Party presidential candidates expressed an interest in changing the regulations concerning homosexuality in the armed forces, and, as American social mores changed, public opinion began to express more sympathy with gay people in armed forces, at least to the extent that investigations into a serviceman or -woman's sexual behaviour and/or orientation were seen as a witch-hunt. "Gays in the military" became a political issue during the 1992 Presidential campaign, when Clinton, the Democratic candidate, promised to lift the military's ban on homosexual and bisexual people.
In 1992, the United States General Accounting Office published a report entitled Defense Force Management: DOD's Policy on Homosexuality. GAO/NSAID-92-98, that outlined the DOD policy on homosexuality and the reasons for it. The report also included excerpts from a previously unpublished 1988 DOD study on homosexuality that made similar conclusions as the 1957 Crittenden Report. In 1993 the two reports were published alongside an argument by an armed forces general who argued against lifting the ban on homosexual- and bisexual-identified people based on a belief that they pose a security risk, will erode unit cohesion and morale alongside the argument that most homosexual and bisexual oriented people are pedophiles who engage in a self-destructive and immoral life-style.
Congressional opposition to lifting the ban on gay and bisexual people in the armed forces was led by Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia who organized Congressional hearings that largely buffed the armed forces position that has remained unchanged since the 1981 directive. While Congressional support for reform was led by Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who fought for a compromise, and retired Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who argued for a complete repeal of the ban. After a large number of people flooded the Congressional phone lines with oppositions to lifting the ban, President Clinton soon backed off on his campaign promise to lift the ban on homosexual and bisexual people in the armed forces. The final result was a Congressional compromise of "Don't ask, don't tell" that was later amended to include "don't harass". Officially, the compromise dictates that the armed forces will no longer ask recruits about their sexual activity and/or orientation, will not investigate any serviceman or servicewoman's sexual activity and/or orientation without solid evidence (thus preventing witch-hunts), and self-identified homosexual servicemen and women agree that they will not engage in homosexual sex acts, or do anything that announces that they are a homosexual, i.e. public statements or participate in a same-sex marriage openly.
In 2000, Northwestern University Professor Charles Moskos, the principal author of DADT (which, as originally coined by Moskos, was "Don't Ask Don't Tell; Don't Seek Don't Flaunt"), told "Lingua Franca" that he felt that policy will be gone within five to ten years. Moskos also dismissed the unit cohesion argument, instead arguing that gay people should be banned due to "modesty rights", saying "Fuck unit cohesion. I don't care about that...I should not be forced to shower with a woman. I should not be forced to shower with a gay [man]." Moskos did not offer any alternative to his DADT policy.
On September 13, 2005, the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (on October 23, 2006 renamed the Michael D. Palm Center), a think tank affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, issued a news release revealing the existence of a 1999 FORSCOM regulation (Regulation 500-3-3) that allowed the active duty deployment of Army Reservists and National Guard troops who say that they are gay or who are accused of being gay. U.S. Army Forces Command spokesperson Kim Waldron later confirmed the regulation and indicated that it was intended to prevent Reservists and National Guard members from pretending to be gay to escape combat.
"Don't ask, don't tell" has been upheld five times in federal court, and in a Supreme Court case, Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the federal government could withhold funding in order to force universities to accept military recruiters in spite of their nondiscrimination policies.
In 1993, the National Defense Research Institute of the Rand Corporation published Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment, prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. On page 409, "Appendix A" exhibits an "Illustrative Standard of Professional Conduct". On page 411, "Appendix B" gives a detailed study of "Living and Privacy Conditions in the Military Service". "Appendix C" analyzes "Legal Provisions Concerning Sodomy". "Appendices D and E" study foreign armed forces (especially Canada's), and "Appendix F" gives "Relevant Data from Surveys".
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In February 2005, the Government Accountability Office released estimates on the cost of the policy. Cautioning that the amount may be too low, the GAO reported $95.4 million in recruiting costs and $95.1 million for training replacements for the 9,488 troops discharged from 1994 through 2003.
In February 2006, a University of California Blue Ribbon Commission including Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration, former Defense Secretary William Perry, a member of the Clinton administration, and professors from West Point U.S. Military Academy concluded that figure should be closer to $363 million, including $14.3 million for "separation travel" once a service member is discharged, $17.8 million for training officers, $252.4 million for training enlistees and $79.3 million in recruiting costs. The commission report stated that the GAO didn't take into account the value the military lost from the departures.
The Military Readiness Enhancement Act is a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 28, 2007. Sponsored by Representative Marty Meehan (D-MA) with 142 cosponsors. On March 28, 2007 the House Committee on Armed Services sent the bill to the Subcommittee on Military Personnel.
The stated purpose of the bill is "to amend title 10, United States Code, to enhance the readiness of the Armed Forces by replacing the current policy concerning homosexuality in the Armed Forces, referred to as 'Don't ask, don't tell', with a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."
A previous version of the bill (H.R. 1059) was introduced in the Republican-controlled 109th Congress. It also was sponsored by Rep. Meehan, and it had 122 cosponsors. The bill did not make it out of committee.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili (Ret.) and former Senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen spoke against the policy publicly in early January 2007: "I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces," General Shalikashvili wrote. "Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job."
In December 2007, 28 retired generals and admirals urged Congress to repeal the policy. They cited evidence that 65,000 gay men and women are currently serving in the armed forces, and that there are over 1,000,000 gay veterans.
On 4 May, 2008, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, when speaking to graduating cadets at West Point, expressed the view "that Congress, and not the military, is responsible for the 'Don't ask, don't tell' law banning openly lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans from military service." Mullen's answer came in response to a cadet's question asking what would happen if the next administration were supportive of legislation allowing gays to serve openly. During his Senate confirmation hearing in 2007, Mullen told lawmakers, "I really think it is for the American people to come forward, really through this body, to both debate that policy and make changes, if that's appropriate." He went on to say, "I'd love to have Congress make its own decisions", with respect to considering repeal.
Some Western military forces have now removed policies excluding individuals of sexual orientations other than heterosexual (with strict policies on sexual harassment). Of the 25 countries that participate militarily in NATO, more than twenty permit gay people to serve; of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, two (Britain, France) permit gay people to serve openly, and three (United States, Russia, China) do not.
The Commonwealth of Australia policies are to allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly. Attention has been drawn to dual American–Australian Norbert Basil MacLean III, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1989–1994 but was court-martialled on what he claims were trumped-up charges due to his sexuality. Had MacLean served in the Royal Australian Navy he would have been permitted to serve as an openly gay man. MacLean's case in the U.S. has resulted in congressional bills in both houses of the 110th U.S. Congress related to Supreme Court review of American courts-martial cases.
On October 27, 1992, protocol officer Air Force lieutenant Michelle Douglas won a suit against the Canadian Forces for discrimination that had forced her resignation. Subsequently, Canada's official policy toward gay men and women in uniform has been one of non-discrimination.
A series of provincial and territorial Supreme Court decisions beginning in 2003 ruled in favour of the legality of gay marriage, and a national law to that effect was passed by Canada's parliament in 2005 by the Paul Martin Liberal government. In May 2005, Canada's first military gay wedding took place at Nova Scotia's Canadian Forces Base Greenwood. Officials described the ceremony as low-key but touching. A similar wedding has since taken place between two male Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers.
During the 2008 Toronto Pride Parade, ten members of the Canadian Forces marched for the first time. Before the parade began, they worked an information booth. Lt(N) Steven Churm said, "The message to the public is that the Canadian Forces is an employer of choice. We have employment opportunities that people can pursue, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation. For our own members, they can be proud of what they're doing and also be proud of who they are.