On September 20, 2012, the nation marked the first anniversary of the repeal of the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, prohibiting gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the US military.
The anniversary was accompanied by the publication of a scholarly report from the Palm Center, “One Year Out: An Assessment of DADT Repeal’s Impact on Military Readiness.” The study concluded that the repeal of DADT has had no negative impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, recruitment and retention of troops, and overall morale. It also found that there has been no increase in assaults or harassment of LGB service members.
While this is all good news, my reaction to this is simple: “don’t ask, don’t tell” was much ado about nothing. Queer folks everywhere can say, “We told you so.”
And many of us did. During the year before President Obama signed the repeal into law, I had the opportunity to provide testimony on “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Review Working Group, the body charged with figuring out the potential viability and eventual implementation of repeal. I spoke with a subcommittee of the larger working group, one that included at least one lawyer and several military officers. The conversation was respectful, at times amiable, and I was both surprised and impressed with what I perceived to be a genuine effort to dismantle discrimination. Still, after a two-hour interview that covered a wide range of topics—including the military’s hyper-masculine culture, the history of racial desegregation in the military, the roots of anti-LGBT stigma, and the norms of gender and sexuality that shape both perceptions of and behavior towards LGBT people—I was struck by one officer’s final question: “But what about the showers, professor?” In retrospect, my response was impulsive, if not rebellious: “What about the showers, sir?” It seemed that even the best intentions might be derailed by the lingering fear of a queer unit. I had entered the conversation with an open mind; I got off the phone feeling less than optimistic about the prospects for success.
Over the years, my own experiences with straight folks I’ve known from the military—friends and family members, ROTC cadets and veteran officers I teach at Harvard—have been mostly positive, including those with whom I disagree strongly (and often) on matters of war and peace. Nearly to a person, these soldiers have convinced me that they are more committed to doing their job and serving their country than purging homosexuals from their ranks. This has been more or less confirmed by my gay and lesbian military friends, who maintain that the military, as an institution, is far more homophobic than the men and women who comprise it. (As a lapsed Catholic this makes perfect sense to me—after all, there are many good priests and nuns who reject the grotesque impositions of the Church in favor of social justice commitments far more in line with Christ’s teachings on poverty, prejudice and peace.) Anecdotally, then, I maintained a certain optimism that change would come in time.