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The Progressive

The Days of Don't Ask, Don't Tell Are Numbered

C. Dixon Osburn

Don't Ask, Don't Tell cannot stand.

This 15-year-old law, which bans gay Americans from serving openly in the military, was the subject of its first ever Congressional hearing on July 23. The testimony was damning.

Members of the Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee were unusually outspoken.

"Just bonkers."






"An affront to me and many of the soldiers."

Those were just some of the criticisms levied by members, who included a retired admiral and an Iraq veteran.

These rebukes mark a turning point in the debate that will likely lead to repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the next couple of years.

There are two big reasons for the increasing support for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members.

First, there is significant new data about how Don't Ask, Don't Tell undermines military readiness.

Second, there has been a major cultural shift in support of gay Americans over the past fifteen years. 2008 is simply not 1993.

The 2000 Census showed that there are 65,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans currently serving in our armed forces. There are one million gay veterans. According to a Zogby poll, 23 percent of returning Iraq and Afghan veterans report that they knew of an openly gay service member in their unit, exploding the myth that gays are not serving openly, even at risk to their careers.

Though short of troops, the Pentagon has discharged more than 12,500 service members for being gay since Don't Ask, Don't Tell was implemented. Each year, an additional 4,000 service members resign their commissions or decline to re-enlist because of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

The Pentagon admits it has discharged service members in mission-critical specialties since Don't Ask, Don't Tell was made law. The most notorious instances are the sixty Arabic linguists the military let go, despite the Army's severe shortage of language specialists.

Proponents of Don't Ask, Don't Tell said that openly gay troops would undermine readiness and morale. But American forces have been serving with openly gay troops from foreign militaries in joint operations and with NATO forces deployed around the world, and yet there has been no report of operational deficiency as a result.

In 2000, America's strongest military ally, Great Britain, lifted its ban on gays in the military without incident, joining 23 other nations that have lifted their bans, including one of the most combat-tested militaries in the world -- Israel's.

In 1993, the sense was that military leaders unanimously opposed gays serving openly. Today, sixty-two flag officers are on record supporting repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General John Shalikashvili, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Wesley Clark, and the first woman to achieve the rank of lieutenant general, Claudia Kennedy.

A poll by military sociologist Charlie Moskos during the debate in 1993 found that only 13 percent of the troops supported gays serving openly. According to a new Washington Post/ABC poll, 50 percent of veterans support gays serving openly.

The seismic shift in military opinion supporting gays serving openly has paralleled the shift among the general public. According to the Post poll, 75 percent of Americans support gays serving openly today, up from 44 percent in 1993. Significant majorities of evangelicals (57 percent), Catholics (82 percent) and conservatives (64 percent) support gays serving openly.

At the hearing of the Personnel Subcommittee, the Pentagon testified that it stood ready to implement any change to the law that Congress approves.

Now that is a welcome sea change. It should sweep away any lingering opposition to overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

C. Dixon Osburn is co-founder, and former executive director, of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. He can be reached at

Copyright 2008 The Progressive Magazine

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