Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Part I: The Origins of DADT

December 2020 marked the 10th anniversary of the signing of legislation kickstarting the process of taking down the discriminatory policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). Kickstarting may be too strong a word, however, because the process to final, actual repeal of the policy was a long and fraught path with stops and starts as the U.S. Armed Forces grappled with how to initiate the process of removing nearly two decades of what amounted to sanctioned discrimination. In the courts, battles were being fought by current and former servicemembers affected by the policy.

This article is the first in a series of articles dedicated to providing information about the policy and its implications such as its human and fiscal costs, the legal battles, the months leading up to the signing of repeal, and the path to the dismantling of DADT.

These days, current servicemembers may not know much about DADT. Only those who have been in since before 2011’s repeal may be able to recall, though that would also likely be confined to those who were actually affected by the policy: the gay, lesbian & bisexual (LGB) servicemember. LGB Veterans who served under DADT and those who were discharged under DADT likely have bitter or indifferent memories of serving in silence. At the risk of sounding like an old timer, times were different in those days. A gay, lesbian, or bisexual servicemember may have been assigned to a unit with an accepting atmosphere but, if he or she chose to come out or if information came up that enacted an investigation to find them out, DADT was a constant threat. Current LGB servicemembers may not understand but current transgender servicemembers are now serving beneath another iteration of DADT.

To mark the decade anniversary of the path to DADT repeal, let’s first delve into the history of the policy and its path of destruction.

The Beginning of an Era

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy started as a compromise of sorts following President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign to allow all American citizens to serve their country regardless of sexual orientation. In 1993, policy debates regarding a lift on the ban of homosexual servicemembers ensued. During that time, arguments from both sides of the issue presented cases ranging from “notoriously promiscuous” homosexuals running rampant through group showers to “little to no adverse consequences for recruitment and retention.”

On June 14, 1993, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced H.R. 2401, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1994, containing language requiring the military to abide by regulations that were similar to the absolute ban on homosexuals in the military but with some important differences.

  1. The servicemember could not engage in, or attempt to engage in/solicit, homosexual acts.
  2. The servicemember could not state that he or she is homosexual or bisexual or words to that effect.
  3. The servicemember could not marry, or attempt to marry, someone of the same biological sex.

The actual language can be found in Section 571 of the FY 2014 NDAA.

While the NDAA made it’s way through Congress, President Bill Clinton took to the air in July 1993 to announce the new military policy on homosexuals in the military.

In September 1993, two notable actions occurred in the House’s deliberation of the NDAA. The first was an amendment introduced by Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA-52) requiring the Department of Defense (DoD) to ask individuals entering the services if they were gay or bisexual and if they engaged in, or had a propensity to engage in, homosexual acts. The amendment failed, 144-291.

A subsequent amendment was introduced by Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO-4) that reinstated language contained in the bill and established congressional policy concerning homosexuality in the armed forces. That amendment passed, 295-133.

The NDAA would then go on to the Senate to pass before heading to the President who signed it into law on November 30, 1993 essentially codifying the slight relaxation of the previous absolute ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers.

It would be another few weeks before the wheels started rolling on the policy however.

Implementing Discrimination

On December 21, 1993, the Clinton Administration issued Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 1304.26, Qualification Standards for Enlistment, Appointment, and Induction, which stated that recruiters could not ask military applicants about their sexual orientation. Below is the language contained in the directive:

A person’s sexual orientation is considered a personal and private matter, and is not a bar to service entry or continued service unless manifested by homosexual conduct in the manner described in subparagraph E1.2.8.2., below. Applicants for enlistment, appointment, or induction shall not be asked or required to reveal whether they are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Applicants also will not be asked or required to reveal whether they have engaged in homosexual conduct, unless independent evidence is received indicating that an applicant engaged in such conduct or unless the applicant volunteers a statement that he or she is a homosexual or bisexual, or words to that effect.

The DoD updated another directive, 1332.14, Enlisted Administrative Separations, to reflect the changes in policy. Below is a comparison of basis between the 1982 and 1993 versions.

Homosexuality is incompatible with military service. The presence in the military environment of persons who engage In homosexual conduct or who, by their statements, demonstrate a propensity to engage in homosexual conduct, seriously impairs the accomplishment of the military mission. The presence of such members adversely affects the ability of the Military Services to maintain discipline, good order, and morale; to foster mutual trust and confidence among servicemembers, to ensure the integrity of the system of rank and command; to facilitate assignment and worldwide deployment of servicemembers who frequently must live and work under close conditions affording minimal privacy: to recruit and retain members of the Military Services; to maintain the public acceptability of military service; and to prevent breaches of security.

DoD Directive 1332.14 – Jan. 28, 1982, Enlisted Administrative Separations

Homosexual conduct is grounds for separation from the Military Services under the terms set forth in subparagraph E3.A1.1.8.1.2., below. Homosexual conduct includes homosexual acts, a statement by a member that demonstrates a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts, or a homosexual marriage or attempted marriage. A statement by a member that demonstrates a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts is grounds for separation not because it reflects the member’s sexual orientation, but because the statement indicates a likelihood that the member engages in or will engage in homosexual acts. A member’s sexual orientation is considered a personal and private matter, and is not a bar to continued service under this section unless manifested by homosexual conduct in the manner described in subparagraph E3.A1.1.8.1.2.

DoD Directive 1332.14 – Dec. 21, 1993, Enlisted Administrative Separations

While the language was scaled back as far as its vehemence against homosexuality, the intent was nonetheless still discriminatory. At least starting in 1993, LGB servicemembers could start serving or continue to serve albeit in silence.

With the directives issued, the new policy was set to go into effect on February 28, 1994, starting a new era of discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Naming Discrimination

Before the policy was known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it was originally suggested as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Seek, Don’t Flaunt” by U.S. military sociologist Charles Constantine Moskos, Jr.

Moskos was widely known as one of the most influential sociologists in the nation. In 1993, he authored a compromise policy to help break an impasse between the Clinton administration and the Armed Forces over gays serving in the military. He is known to have coined the phrase “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The policy was approved by then Secretary of Defense Lee Aspin before being recommended to the President. In the months that followed, Moskos worked with the White House, the Senate Armed Forces Committee, and the Armed Forces to draft the policy that eventually became law.

It should be noted that, at the time (1993-1994), the full name of the policy was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” with each part outlining a provision of the policy:

  • Don’t Ask: Military or appointed officials could not ask or require members and applicants to disclose their sexual orientation.
  • Don’t Tell: A military member or applicant could not disclose their sexual orientation as a homosexual or bisexual; doing so would be grounds for discharge from the ranks or rejection of enlistment.
  • Don’t Pursue: This established the minimal requirements for an investigation to be initiated when a military member was found to be or rumored to be homosexual or bisexual.

Later on, “Don’t Harass” was added to the policy to state that the services would not allow harassment or violence against servicemembers.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was in effect from February 28, 1994 to September 20, 2011. Over the course of nearly 18 years, DADT would result in the discharge of approximately 16,350 servicemembers and cost the American taxpayer $365 million.

Stay Tuned for Part II: The Costs of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

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