Gays in the Military – Rethinking Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the Clinton Administration’s introduction of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military, believes it may be time for rethinking our policy. Not only do the current difficulties in recruiting and retaining personnel make turning away qualified candidates harder to justify, he believes there is strong evidence that the culture has changed enough to allow openly gay soldiers to serve without disrupting unit cohesion.

Last year I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine crew. These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers.

This perception is supported by a new Zogby poll of more than 500 service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, three quarters of whom said they were comfortable interacting with gay people. And 24 foreign nations, including Israel, Britain and other allies in the fight against terrorism, let gays serve openly, with none reporting morale or recruitment problems.

The general public is quickly coming to accept homosexuality, probably owing largely to Hollywood’s positive portrayals of gay characters and the increasing number of public figures (again, mostly entertainers) who are “out.” The military is naturally making this adaptation, too, although its macho culture will lag behind. It took years for white soldiers to accept blacks as equals and decades for that to happen with women. Homosexuality has taken longer for a variety of reasons.

Shalikashvili is right to place the emphasis on practicality rather than “fairness.” The life-and-death nature of combat requires that military effectiveness take precedence over social considerations. After all, we allow the military to discriminate on height, strength, obesity and other factors for which most industries would be hauled into court. Indeed, many occupational specialties are still closed to women generically, regardless of the abilities of any specific woman to perform the task.

Interestingly, Shalikashvili advises a go-slow approach:

But if America is ready for a military policy of nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation, the timing of the change should be carefully considered. As the 110th Congress opens for business, some of its most urgent priorities, like developing a more effective strategy in Iraq, share widespread support that spans political affiliations. Addressing such issues could help heal the divisions that cleave our country. Fighting early in this Congress to lift the ban on openly gay service members is not likely to add to that healing, and it risks alienating people whose support is needed to get this country on the right track.

By taking a measured, prudent approach to change, political and military leaders can focus on solving the nation’s most pressing problems while remaining genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the ban. When that day comes, gay men and lesbians will no longer have to conceal who they are, and the military will no longer need to sacrifice those whose service it cannot afford to lose.

He’s almost certainly right on the divisiveness that this fight will engender and that there are other priorities that could and therefore should be addressed more quickly. If, however, the esprit issue is no longer there, this is a policy that needs to be changed sooner rather than later. Discrimination on the basis of military necessity is justifiable; discrimination on the basis of political expediency is not.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Gender Issues, LGBTQ Issues, Military Affairs, Terrorism, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    The general public is quickly coming to accept homosexuality, probably owing largely to Hollywood’s positive portrayals of gay characters and the increasing number of public figures (again, mostly entertainers) who are out.

    I think Hollywood makes a very weak case that the
    ‘Esprit’ issue has gone away in the military.

    I don’t really care what ‘openly gay’ people do, as I think it is their responsibility at work to do their job, which may not include ‘openness’. If they are exhibiting appropriate workplace behavior, their ‘sexuality’ should not be all that evident. Certainly sex between any troops is neither open nor condoned anywhere in a combat zone.

    My only concern is one of logistics. If troops are showering, sleeping, working in close quarters, is there still a case for seperation by sexual orientation? I assume female troops have been traditionally seperated from male for this reason. Do we now have another category, or two? Or do we remove the lines and put all troops in the same barracks regardless.

  2. James Joyner says:

    The Hollywood and esprit issues are only tangentially related. I’m just saying that the general culture has shifted and the military culture is shifting with it.

  3. mike says:

    I am still in and I personally would like to see us get rid of the policy but I don’t see this working in the military right now – esp now with such close quarters in the deployed environment – while Hollywood may be changing the perception and a lot of folks are more accepting I think we are years away – ask the same folks who said they were fine with serving with homosexuals whether that included group showers and the like and the answer would change to no way – again, I am not saying this is the correct view but i think it is still the reality – perhaps the former chairman of hte joint chiefs has not served in a line unit in a while (like in at least 20 years due to his rank)

  4. Anderson says:

    I think more openness would *help* straight/gay soldiers get along.

    If you’re showering with some guys & you worry that one of them might be gay & looking at you, that can be bothersome & hurt morale.

    As opposed to showering with guys, one of whom everyone knows is gay & who’s open about it, so that there can be joking, etc. to relieve any tension. “Too bad you can’t have some of THIS, Smithers!” “Dream on, breeder!” (Probably much more scatological than OTB quality standards can bear, but you get the idea.)

  5. Only Nixon could go to China. And likewise, Rudy would not be a president to implement this smoothly. I can’t think of any democrat who could do it with out the firestorm. It would take a republican of Reaganesque stature to make the change smoothly, but I can’t think who that would be.

  6. just me says:

    I think it is time to ditch don’t ask don’t tell.

    I do agree that it is probably not going to be an easy ditch, and I think the upper ranks of the US military are the ones who are going to have to advocate the change, because I suspect congress isn’t going to be willing to take this on otherwise.

    But there isn’t really a compelling reason in my opinion to restrict gays from serving, and the concerns that are legitimate can be dealt with in the UCMJ.

  7. floyd says:

    that’s America today… shout down the opposition , then swear they’ve changed sides!

  8. William d\'Inger says:

    I find the timing of his pronouncement in sync with the Democratic Party takeover in Congress to be suspicious. I suspect it’s some kind of propaganda coup rather than a genuine shift in his attitude. I fully expect the Democrats to reward him with something big in the near future.

  9. jerry robertson says:

    Homosexuals make up a very very small percentage of the American population….2 to 5 percent at best…sorry, I don’t believe Hollywierd sets any policy worth paying attention too…they are actors….ACTORS…they don’t know how to stand, sit, or, talk without someone telling them what and how to do it….sorry..Hollywierd is one of the reasons the muslims can point to the degredation of society….and they are right…
    Let Hollywierd set policy and the USA is down the drain….
    Keep gays OUT of the service…there are not enough of them to make that much of a difference….
    Keep the military as the elite..the best…the best trained and most motivated…..the armed services are still meeting their recruiting goals…let the government enlarge the size of our fighting force…(thanks Bill Clinton for dismantiling the services)….more money, more men and women….NO GAYS…..sorry you are all wet on this subject….