The Cost of the Closet

A Salon special report examines the real-life impact of "don't ask, don't tell."

By Daryl Lindsey

Published June 6, 2000 7:05PM (EDT)

To many gay rights advocates, 1992 felt like the "Year of the Queer." Newly elected President Clinton had promised federal workplace protection and a repeal of the ban on gays in the military. In activist and longtime Clinton-supporter David Mixner, the gay community even had its own F.O.B. (Friend of Bill). "We deeply believed this would be a turning point in our history," Mixner later wrote in his memoir. Indeed, Clinton's public embrace of gay supporters had never before been seen in a modern presidential campaign.

It was against this backdrop of optimism that Navy midshipman Keith Meinhold came out on ABC's "World News Tonight" in May 1992, and Naval Lt. Zoe Dunning outed herself publicly at a rally to end the gay ban in January 1993.

But the euphoria that came with the legitimization of gay rights as a political movement blinded the movement's leaders. Most failed to predict the coming backlash, especially against Clinton's plan to issue an executive order lifting the ban on gays in the military. Ultimately, few political issues have been as divisive in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill as the question of whether or not to permit lesbians and gay men to serve openly in the armed forces.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell called Clinton's planned repeal of the ban on gays in the military "prejudicial to good order and discipline." Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, then-head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said removing the ban was "not simply a presidential prerogative," and he spearheaded legislation in Congress that codified the ban on self-identified gays and lesbians.

Gays had one powerful argument in the widely publicized stories of witch hunts that led to the discharge of 15,000 gays in the 10-year-period leading up to the Clinton presidency, investigations which the General Accounting Office estimated were costing $27 million a year. But money clearly wasn't an issue, since more than $130 million has been spent on the implementation of "don't ask, don't tell," according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, and the witch-hunt argument wasn't enough to stop the legislative steamroller. The "don't ask, don't tell" statute became law in 1993, allowing closeted homosexuals to continue to serve in the military, so long as their sexual identity was kept concealed.

Though Meinhold, Dunning, and later Col. Grethe Cammermeyer and others prevailed in the courts and got their discharges overturned, the policy was a devastating blow to the gay rights movement. Paired with the Clinton-backed "Defense of Marriage Act," which prohibits federal recognition of gay marriages, "don't ask, don't tell" was the greatest setback to gay rights in a decade.

But gay intellectual and political leaders can now take a pragmatic look back at the failure to lift the ban. "Rightly or wrongly, many of us in the movement felt he was going to get rid of the policy," reflected Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and author of "Virtual Equality," an influential treatise on the gay movement.

"What people didn't think through," Vaid holds, "was the reaction that Congress would have. I don't think we spent enough time plotting out how we were going to deal with it. Most energy was still going into health policy. [Gays in the military] was a small issue that very few people focused on. There weren't lobbyists spending time on it. There were only a couple of organizations that had worked on it. It didn't get the same priority as hate crimes or AIDS and health, next to which we were also seeking a comprehensive gay rights bill."

Vaid is hesitant to label the effort to lift the ban a failure, but it certainly forced gay political leaders to do some serious soul-searching. "I think it showed us how enormously powerless we were. The backlash displayed our weakness -- not just the NGLTF, but also other organizations. We were powerless to stop it," she says. And during the last eight years, organizations like NGLTF and the larger Human Rights Campaign have been working to build a stronger political base in Washington.

Meanwhile, the media seemed to open up after the debate over gays in the military. "The White House press corps never asked gay and lesbian questions," Vaid recalls. "Gays in the military provided the opening."

Andrew Sullivan, in his book "Virtually Normal," noticed a similar new opennness. "Like a family engaged in the first angry steps toward dealing with a gay member, the country was forced to debate the subject honestly in a way it never had before. This was a clear and enormous gain. Even though the process led to defeat, and seared into the consciousness of many public officials that homosexual subjects are political death, it was worth it."

Politically, "don't ask, don't tell" faded into the background of the Clinton presidency. But the issue jumped back on the front burner in July 1999, when Private Barry Winchell was beaten to death with a baseball bat in his barracks at Fort Campbell, Ky., because he was gay. The killing represented the first major public opinion challenge to the policy. In the wake of the murder, the Pentagon ordered sensitivity training for its troops to curb anti-gay harassment, the first revision to "don't ask, don't tell," since the policy was adopted.

In March, the Pentagon released a survey of military personnel, ordered in the wake of the Winchell killing, that indicated widespread anti-gay harassment in the armed forces. Eighty percent of respondents said they had heard anti-gay remarks; 37 percent had witnessed or experienced harassment of gays or lesbians. Independent studies show that annual discharges of gays and lesbians from the military had nearly doubled since the inception of "don't ask, don't tell."

In the twilight of his presidency, Clinton admitted he was unhappy with what he now describes as a policy failure. At an October fundraiser for gay Democrats in New York, an apologetic president lamented the policy as "that awful battle that I waged and didn't win over the military service issue." In December, on CBS News Radio, he described it as "out of whack." "The policy as implemented," Clinton told the network, "does not work as I announced and as the leaders of our military at that time in 1993 pledged to implement it."

The aim of "don't ask, don't tell" may well have been to allow gay men and women to serve in the military as long as they kept their lips sealed, but the statistics tell a different story. In 1999, the armed forces discharged 1,034 people for being gay, a 73 percent increase since Congress codified the policy, according to the SLDN. In the years leading up to "don't ask, don't tell," when there was a full ban on homosexuals serving, the number of gays discharged from the military was, ironically, in steady decline, from a high point of around 2,000 in 1982 to a low of 597 in 1994, immediately after the policy was implemented.

Will a new president change the law? Al Gore said yes in December, and promised to make it a litmus test for appointing officers to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But he flip-flopped a few days later after a barrage of criticism. Ironically, Republicans now support the Clinton policy. Straight-talker John McCain said, "'Don't ask, don't tell' works. I'll support it; I'll continue to improve it." And George W. Bush echoed McCain. "I'm a don't-ask-don't-tell man," he said at a debate in New Hampshire in January.

Given the Clinton administration's troubles in lifting the ban, nobody expects much change to come from a new administration. Reform is likely to come slowly, and through Congress, not the courts. Unlike Europe, where the Strasbourg, France-based Court of Human Rights has ordered member nations to lift the few remaining bans on gays in the military, the U.S. Supreme Court, which tends to shy away from cases involving laws made by Congress, has refused to hear the four cases that have reached it.

"Don't ask, don't tell" architect and Northwestern University professor Charles Moskos told Salon, "If people don't like the present status of homosexuals in the military, they should go to Congress." The great irony of "don't ask, don't tell," is that since it was enacted, public support for the repeal of the ban has grown considerably. A February 1999 Gallup poll showed 70 percent of Americans nodding in support of allowing gays to serve. But as an issue, gays in the military lacks the broad-based appeal of gun control or abortion, and Congress isn't expected to change the policy anytime soon.

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This week Salon News examines the issue in "The Cost of the Closet: A Salon special report on the real-life impact of 'don't ask, don't tell.'" On Tuesday and Wednesday, Dave Cullen's "Don't ask, don't tell, don't fall in love" explores the world of gay officers, who endure a different set of problems from enlisted men and women. Three closeted captains watch their professional horizons shrink as they move into their 30s and remain bachelors, since male generals, at least, must marry, while their private lives suffer from the absolute secrecy their careers impose. In the course of Cullen's four-month investigation, he watches two of the captains make life-changing decisions that straight officers would never have had to face.

On Thursday Fiona Morgan examines the issues for lesbians. Although women make up only 14 percent of the military, they make up 31 percent of those discharged under "don't ask, don't tell." Lesbians arguably have it toughest, Morgan finds, because the military may be more uncomfortable with women in its ranks than it is with gay men.

Friday and Tuesday, look for a Fight Club in which Moskos, retired Col. Grethe Cammermeyer and SLDN legal director Stacey Sobel debate whether gays and lesbians should serve in the military.

Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

Daryl Lindsey

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Bill Clinton Lgbt U.s. Military