Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A DADT Question

Steve Benen has a fine item ridiculing the "shower issue" when it comes to DADT repeal implementation. He's right of course; the people pushing this stuff are dead-enders, and this fight is over (most likely explanation: there's still money to be made by doing one more round of scare stories/fundraising pitches; the fight is over, but that doesn't mean easily-duped donors know that, and the people who make a living parting them from their money aren't going to tell them).

Anyway, Benen refers to DADT as a 17 year policy, but of course DADT was a replacement for an absolute ban an gays and lesbians in the military.  Bill Clinton had pledged to repeal that ban when he was running for president in 1992, and DADT was adopted as part of his defeat on that issue. 

I think generally liberals believe, and believed at the time, that the fight in 1993 was a total defeat.  As it turned out, the implementation of DADT, if I recall correctly, resulted in a much more aggressive effort to drive gays and lesbians out of the armed forces; in other words, for actual gay and lesbian troops, things got worse.  But Bill Clinton presented the new policy as a compromise, and I'm not entirely sure he was wrong.

So here's my question: did the shift from the ban to DADT help the fight to achieve the original goal of ending the ban?  Putting aside the issue of implementation (for which I don't think those affected can forgive Bill Clinton, unless I have the facts of the situation wrong), and assuming that the votes just weren't there in 1993 for Clinton to win on the issue, was accepting DADT better than just continuing the status quo?  I think there's a case to be made, but I'm really not sure...I can see a case that it made no difference, or a case that it was worse than nothing.  Anyone have an argument one way or another?


  1. I don't feel like it had much of an effect on lifting the overall ban (assuming such a lift really is imminent). I think DADT just became shorthand FOR an outright ban, even though there was more nuance than that. I mean, the reason DADT doesn't work is that you just can't ask someone to live a "lie" like that. But that's not what the arguments for and against it turned on, it was all "who are we to turn away someone willing to serve?" and "If the soldiers don't want it, they shouldn't have to deal with it!" It was an argument about gays in the military AT ALL, not about the DADT policy. And of course, the fact that we had a policy that BOTH sides were claiming as a working compromise certainly delayed any further action for a few years.

    OTOH, it probably did help in exposure (which seems to really be the critical component in all moves towards gay rights). I rather imagine that, especially in the first year or two of its existence, homosexuals felt more open to service. Many of their fellow soldiers certainly figured them out, and attitudes softened. But I also imagine the openness ended by about the turn of the century, when it was understood (correctly or not) that DADT was a scam.

    Moreover, I think any benefit of exposure was balanced out by the psychological toll of forcing these soldiers to keep such a major part of their lives completely hidden, by making other soldiers afraid to talk about it even if their motives were pure, and the breakdown in unit cohesion that naturally followed from both. To say nothing of the national security failures of leaving talented potential soldiers unrecruited and bouncing soldiers already in the system.

    So no, I don't think it was better than nothing, and I don't think it moved the ball further to any significant extent. But understand that those opinions are all based on hindsight; at the time, I thought it was a viable compromise, if not exactly an inspiring one. But at the time, I don't think our understanding of "the closet" was as good as it is now, and we certainly didn't know that it would end up discouraging homosexual recruits nearly as much as an outright ban. Now, however, we know.

  2. My guess is that it wasn't DADT as such that made things worse for gay troops, but the fact that gayness became a symbolic culture-war issue.

    Bear in mind that the UCMJ prohibits a lot of sexual things, such as married troops having affairs. Commanders usually invoke these provisions only when some actual discipline concern is involved (e.g., officer/enlisted relationships).

    The DADT controversy changed gayness from just one more human foible that might cause discipline problems but usually didn't, into a symbolic baggage issue. Commanders who previously would have been embarrassed about spending time and command resources on troops' sex lives could now imagine that they were saving America from ... whatever.

  3. I am surprised at how much has been forgotten since the debate 17 years ago. The Clinton policy was very liberal progress, not a compromise. There was no way a repeal of the ban was going to happen. The debate was whether gays should be thrown in the brig or out of the military. The idea that they would be allowed to serve without screening them out in the interview process ("are you a homosexual?" was a required question) pushed the debate forward. No question about it.

  4. Putting aside the real-world effects of DADT (not to minimize them of course), I think the move from an outright ban to DADT was helpful in advancing civil rights. DADT permitted gay soldiers to serve, in a fashion, and led to the very powerful argument that no one should have to lie about who they are to serve their country. I don't think repeal happens this year without that argument.

  5. It seems to me that DADT was a positive incremental step towards enabling gay and lesbian troops to serve openly. It established the fact that troops are already unknowingly showering and fighting beside gay soldiers without any adverse effects, thus totally invalidating the homophobic arguments against policies that are neutral regarding sexual orientation.

  6. If memory serves, DADT was a compromise because Congress was poised to pass a statutory ban on gays in the military (essentially making the rules in the UCMJ an act of Congress) to block Clinton's ability to do away with the policy as commander in chief (as Truman did when he desegregated the military).

    In some ways DADT was better and worse. It meant the the question of sexual orientation was not posed as part of the intake process (which did not really change much, since that was really just an informal "Don't Tell" policy). But it did change the rules to allow people to be kicked out of the military just for "telling" whereas before, I believe, there actually had to be a homosxual "act" for a person to be discharged. Under DADT, people were discharged for simply writing letters or emails indicating they were gay even if the person never acted on it. This had the probably unintended effect of changing the way that the military viewed homesexuality from an act (meaning a choice) to something that was an innate aspect of a person (paralleling the same debate in society at large about whether homosexuality is a choice or an immutable characteristic). Without that shift in perspective, I find it hard to believe that the ban ever would have been lifted (or that the gay rights movement would have been as successful as it has been over the last few decades).

  7. lapelpinhead is exactly right. I'm old enough to remember when most civilians actually thought there were no homosexual soldiers -- all homosexuals were swishy hairdressers or fashion designers. If a few snuck into the military, they would be instantly recognizable and easily ousted. DADT changed that perspective; people (including soldiers) began to acknowledge that many gay people had always been in the army, and would always be there.

  8. DADT was an improvement in a number of concrete ways. First, if you were going to get kicked out for being gay, you received an honorable discharge. That was a change. Second, DADT allowed for freedom of association. You couldn't be kicked out for just going to a gay bar, or pride parade, whereas previously you could on those grounds alone. Third, DADT ended the witch hunts. Previously, if someone was outed, the command would use that person (by threat of court-martial) to rat out the other gays in the unit or elsewhere. DADT ended that practice. So yes, it was actually a big improvement.

  9. I get the impression that DADT was much better for *most* gay troops, but bad if there was an officer in the chain of command who obsessed about gays.

    For example, ISTR that there was a real issue of soldiers at the military language school in Monterey getting outed and discharged. What I don't know is whether that situation was actually especially bad there, or it just got extra public attention because of the unfathomable stupidity of kicking out soldiers who had a critical specialized skill (fluent Arabic speakers, etc.).

  10. "Third, DADT ended the witch hunts. Previously, if someone was outed, the command would use that person (by threat of court-martial) to rat out the other gays in the unit or elsewhere. DADT ended that practice."

    Nonsense. The DA and oft-forgot DP (Don't Pursue) portions of the policy were routinely violated. NO ONE has EVER been discharged or punished for asking or pursuing.


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