Homosexuality and the Military: What “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is and Why It Matters

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A Family Voice Bulletin

Liberals have spent decades targeting the United States military with their demands for radical social restructuring in favor of homosexuality. As it applies to the military, their social policy agenda trumps all other considerations: the goal is not a stronger or better-prepared military. This paper seeks to clear up the confusion which exists on this topic. It will summarize the issues at stake so you will be equipped to understand the ongoing policy debates.

In his 2010 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama pledged, “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.”1 Liberals refer to this law as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which confuses the issue and helps advance their agenda. In reality, the law is forthright in its exclusion of homosexual practice in the military. By contrast, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a root Executive Branch policy implemented in Defense Department regulations. The policy is designed to evade the law. Prior to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military would ask when a person signed up for military service and exclude that person in obedience to the law if his or her homosexuality came to light.

What is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?

In 2008 testimony before Congress, Elaine Donnelly, founder and president of the Center for Military Readiness (CMR), provides a good explanation. She notes that “In 1993 President Bill Clinton attempted to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military sparking months of intense debate. Following twelve legislative hearings and field trips, Congress passed a law codifying and confirming the pre-Clinton policy.” 2 That law “clearly states that homosexuals are not eligible for military service.” 3 Notice that the law is not the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Donnelly explains that President Clinton proposed his new “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in July 1993. The idea was that as long as homosexual service members didn’t tell anyone, they could serve in the military. However, “instead of approving such a convoluted and legally-questionable concept, Congress chose to codify Defense Department regulations that were in place long before Bill Clinton took office.” 4

In short, although the popular media and politicians tend to cloud the issue, this issue is fairly forthright and has two key points: the law and the regulations.

1. The 1993 law stating clearly that service members who engage in homosexual behaviors will be separated from service, and,

2. A presidential policy established in Defense Department regulations which says the military is not to ask about a service member’s homosexual behavior(s).

What Now?

President Obama took the issue to a new level and has promised to repeal the law. In the meantime, he is weakening the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. His late-January State of the Union promise was quickly followed by February 2 hearings on Capitol Hill in which Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said it would be “the right thing to do” to allow homosexual service members to serve openly. Mullen won plaudits for his bravery: the headline in The Washington Post’s online article by Dana Milbank crowed “Mullen deserves medal.” Milbank gushed that for all the admiral’s medals, “never did he do something braver that what he did on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.” 5

To win medals for bravery from the mainstream media, all a military commander needs to do is go along with the conventional, liberal agenda. Simply go along with the latest politically correct mandate, and avoid thinking independent thoughts or challenging the status quo, and – poof! – you’re brave!

By contrast, Mullen’s predecessor, General Peter Pace, faced withering criticism from the establishment simply for noting that homosexual behavior is immoral. As Milbank describes it: “Just three years ago, Mullen’s predecessor as chairman, Gen. Peter Pace, gave a very different view on gays in the military, saying, ‘We should not condone immoral acts.'” 6 Instead of gushing articles praising him for bravery, Gen. Pace lost his position when President George W. Bush refused to re-appoint him for fear of intense confirmation hearings over the war in Iraq and, “Some [congressional staffers] said Pace’s recent comments to reporters at the Chicago Tribune about the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, in which he said homosexuality was immoral, would also be a distracting issue.” 7

Shortly after the hearings, Admiral Mullen implemented revisions to weaken the regulations and make the law that much tougher to follow. Mullen also launched a widespread Pentagon review of the policy which is expected by the end of 2010.

Bottom Line:

The law says homosexual behavior is not compatible with military service. Executive Branch policy (led by the president, implemented by the Defense Department) is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” President Obama promised to repeal the law that says homosexual behavior is not compatible with military service. His first step was to weaken the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy by launching a comprehensive review of the policy (expected at the end of 2010) and by toughening its evidence standards and reporting processes.

The New York Times reports that “the interim measures take effect immediately” and that they “raise the standard of evidence.” 8 Tougher standards of evidence, it goes without saying, mean less ability to follow the law. In the news report, the Secretary of Defense attempts to defend his new measures, saying they “will ensure that the current policy is carried out in ‘a fairer and more appropriate manner.'” 9 The Center for Military Readiness calls the “recently released Department of Defense regulations that redefine and weaken enforcement of the 1993 law” by new shorthand: “Don’t Report, Don’t Act.” 10

This is where we stand. What, then, is the background, and how did we get here?

What the Law Says

When Congress passed the 1993 law, it made numerous findings of fact and logic. The findings are not based on what feels good; they are objective and rational. Congress found, among others, that: 11

“The primary purpose of the armed forces is to prepare for and to prevail in combat should the need arise.” “The armed forces must maintain personnel policies that exclude persons whose presence in the armed forces would create an unacceptable risk to the armed forces’ high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” “The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts 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.” “There is no constitutional right to serve in the armed forces.” “[I]t lies within the discretion of the Congress to establish qualifications for and conditions of service in the armed forces.”

Therefore, based on a comprehensive series of objective findings, the law requires that a person must be separated from service if he or she engages in, attempts to engage in, or solicits others to engage in homosexual acts (except for specific circumstances) or the individual states he or she is a homosexual or bisexual (again, except for specific circumstances) or he or she marries or attempts to marry a person of the same sex.

Reasons to Keep the Law

Purpose of the Military

The purpose of the military, according to the oath of enlistment, is to “Support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” 12 According to the 1993 law, “the primary purpose of the armed forces is to prepare for and to prevail in combat.” 13 Imposing a social agenda based on sexual choices diverts the focus of the military from its primary purpose.

Military Service is Not a Matter of “Rights”

Military service is not a constitutional right. 14 Not everyone who wishes to serve in the military can do so. No one is denied a constitutional right as a result. Those who do not meet the standards set by Congress and the military simply may not serve. The standards go far beyond sexual choices, though they are certainly a part of those standards.

Military Leaders Object

More than 1,100 distinguished military leaders, including 51 four-star generals, 15 testified in an open letter to President Obama on April 9, 2009, that:

“We believe that imposing this burden on our men and women in uniform would undermine recruiting and retention, impact leadership at all echelons, have adverse effects on the willingness of parents who lend their sons and daughters to military service, and eventually break the All-Volunteer Force.” 16

These bold leaders speak with authority. They know the military and its culture. Polling data back up their concerns. A 2009 poll17 of active military members by the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) showed 52 percent of respondents favored “an outright ban on military service by homosexuals,” while another 16 percent felt the status quo was working. If the law were repealed and homosexual service members permitted to serve openly, 48 percent said it would have “a very negative effect” on morale and readiness, while another 20 percent said it would have “a moderately negative effect.” Furthermore, “the MOAA poll tracks with a separate poll conducted by the Military Times media organization four years in a row. The 2008 Military Times poll showed that 58 percent of active-duty respondents were opposed to efforts to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.'” 18

Separation from Service has Minimal Impact

A 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals that:

“From the passage of the homosexual conduct policy statute, in fiscal year 1994, through fiscal year 2003 the military services separated about 9,500 service members for homosexual conduct. This represents about 0.40 percent of the 2.37 million members separated for all reasons during this period.” 19

Such a small percentage is hardly worth the excitement generated in the media. However, as the Center for Military Readiness so adroitly points out, the most effective way to prevent even this expense is to prevent the situation in the first place.

“We keep hearing about personnel losses that have occurred since 1994 when military personnel announce that they are homosexual and are honorably discharged. In comparison to discharges for other reasons, such as pregnancy or violations of weight standards, these numbers are relatively small. They could be reduced to near-zero if the Defense Department stopped issuing misleading information about the eligibility of homosexuals to serve in uniform. The routine inquiry about homosexuality can and should be reinstated now; no additional legislation is required.” 20 [Emphasis added].

Meanwhile, in a more recent article, retired Marine Corps Commandant Carl E. Mundy, Jr., notes that “official statistics reveal that since passage of the law 16 years ago, total discharges for homosexuality amount to less than three-quarters of 1 percent of those discharged before completion of enlistment or retirement. More than four times as many have been discharged for inability to maintain personal weight standards.”21 [Emphasis added].

Politicizing the Military

Repealing the 1993 law would force the military to deal with homosexual relationships and engulf the military in the same-sex “marriage” and domestic partners benefits debate. No one can pretend that this would not be a distraction. Instead of focusing on the mission of winning wars, homosexual activists in the military would be focused on their mission of advancing their “rights,” including the “right” to same-sex “marriage.” Currently, the citizens of 31 states, when given the opportunity, have voted against this agenda. If a federal institution began to recognize this living arrangement as a “marriage” and allowed it to stand on equal footing, then it would be breaking federal and state laws already voted in place by a bi-partisan majority.

This sidetracked mission of social experimentation would also create an environment of hostility in the unique atmosphere of the military. Service members expect to face hardship in their profession, many of which are unique to the military: basic training, deployments, permanent change of station (PCS), and hazardous jobs – to say nothing of engaging in warfare itself. By contrast, no soldier volunteers for military service in order to subject themselves to unwanted sexual attention. For example, the Air Force recruiting Web page lists the core values required for service in the Air Force. The second core value is “service before self” and states, “Those who allow their appetites to drive them to make sexual overtures to subordinates are unfit for military service.” 22


The law which President Obama and liberals in Congress hope to repeal is a reasonable law which ensures that the U.S. military is ready and able to meet its primary objective. Despite Executive Branch policy that makes the law difficult to enforce, the law itself sets an objective standard that respects all Americans, no matter their sexual choices. The advocates of politicizing the military on the basis of individuals’ sexual choices have yet to make their case. Those who support the law which requires separation from military service on the basis of homosexual behavior and choices have a comprehensive set of logical and objective arguments, many of which are enshrined in the findings of the law itself, to back up their decision. It is best for the military. It is best for individual service members. It is best for all those who desire to serve their country in our nation’s armed forces.

End Notes
President Barack Obama, 2010 State of the Union Address, January 27, 2010, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-state-union-address, accessed April 26, 2010. Testimony of Elaine Donnelly, President, Center for Military Readiness (CMR), before the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Personnel, In Support of Section 654, Title 10, the 1993 Law Stating that Homosexuals are not Eligible to Serve in the Military, July 23, 2008, p. 2, http://armedservices.house.gov/pdfs/MilPers072308/Donnelly_Testimony072308.pdf, accessed April 27, 2010. Ibid. Ibid. Dana Milbank, “Mullen Deserves Medal for Senate Testimony Backing Open Military Service by Gays,” The Washington Post, February 2, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/02/AR2010020203486.html, accessed April 27, 2010. Ibid. The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Nation’s Top Military Officer Ousted,” June 7, 2007, http://ww.uniontrib.com/uniontrib/20070609/news_1n9joint.html, accessed April 27, 2010. Thom Shanker, “A Military Downgrading of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” The New York Times, March 25, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/26/us/politics/26military.html, accessed April 27, 2010. Ibid. Center for Military Readiness, New DoD Policy: “Don’t Report, Don’t Act;” DoD Elevates Political Promises Over Principle,http://cmrlink.org/HMilitary.asp?docID=382, accessed April 27, 2010. 10 USC 654 Oaths of Enlistment and Oaths of Office, U.S. Army Center of Military History, http://www.history.army.mil/faq/oaths.htm, accessed April 28, 2010. 10 USC 654 Ibid. Grace Vuoto, “The Next Frontier: Gays in the Military,” Reflections, a magazine of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal, October 2009, Vol. 1, No. 9, http://ebireflections.net/index.php?vol=001_vol&iss=009_issueion=01_cover_story&item=01_cover_story.xhtml#id01_cover_story, accessed April 27, 2010. Flag & General Officers for the Military, Statement to President Barack H. Obama and Members of Congress, Support for the 1993 Law Regarding Homosexuals in the Military (Section 654, Title 10, U.S.C.), March 2009, http://cmrlink.org/CMRDocuments/FlagOfficersLetterPOTUS-033109.pdf, accessed April 28, 2010. Grace Vuoto, “Is Obama Administration Listening to the Troops?” The Washington Times, July 30, 2009, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jul/30/is-obama-administration-listening-to-the-troops/, accessed April 28, 2010. See also, Center for Military Readiness, MOAA Survey results, http://cmrlink.org/cmrdocuments/MOAASurveyCharts-Effect080109.pdf, accessed April 28, 2010. Ibid U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Military Personnel: Financial Cost and Loss of Critical Skills Due to DOD’s Homosexual Conduct Policy Cannot Be Completely Estimated”, February 23, 2005, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-05-299, accessed April 28, 2010. Donnelly Testimony before House Armed Services Committee, July 23, 2008, p. 5, http://armedservices.house.gov/pdfs/MilPers072308/Donnelly_Testimony072308.pdf, accessed April 27, 2010. Carl E. Mundy, Jr., “Maintain Military Gay Ban,” The Washington Times, January 12, 2010, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jan/12/maintain-military-gay-ban/, accessed April 27, 2010. United States Air Force, “Core Values of the United States Air Force,” www.airforce.com/learn-about/our-values/, accessed April 28, 2010.

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