Overcoming the Don't Ask, Don't Tell barrier

Guest column by Rev. Eric Anderson

Rev. Eric Anderson

I remember when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass)” was progress, a step away from the absolute ban of gay and lesbian persons from proudly serving their country in the armed forces, and toward their full inclusion as citizens of the United States. It wasn’t enough, but it was something, and in the political climate of 1993 it seemed it would be a brief time before the next step would be taken and the ban would fall.

A successful prognosticator I’m not, unless you call 17 years a “brief time.”

My denomination, the United Church of Christ, shared my optimism that year. The 1993 General Synod, the representative body that governs the national setting of the church, voted “A Call to End the Ban Against Gays and Lesbians in the Military.” Congress, however, voted that year to do the opposite, and strengthened the requirement for discharges of gay and lesbian service members. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) enabled those soldiers, aircrew, sailors, and Marines to continue serving – as long as they told nobody, and weren’t otherwise “outed.”

As a policy for the military, it made very little sense. Facing the prospect of combat, members of platoons and crews have to trust one another to a degree rarely found in the civilian world. The result is the high value placed on honor, responsibility, and honesty, a value easily dismissed by those outside the military but impossible to ignore in any encounter with that world. “Don’t Tell” was a flat contradiction to a foundational principle of military life and culture.

I remember some of the debates from 1993, when those who endorsed the ban raised the specter of security breaches. Gay service members, ran the argument, were more vulnerable to extortion; they could be led to reveal secrets under threat of revealing their sexual orientation.

DADT didn’t change this risk at all, of course (neither did a total ban). The risk could only be removed by the action Congress and the president took at the end of last year: welcoming the voluntary service of all citizens of the nation without regard to sexual orientation.

The policy, for now, remains in place. Under the repeal legislation, the president, the secretary of defense, and the chair of the joint chiefs of staff must certify that the regulations required by the repeal are ready and are “consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.” That has not yet occurred.

When it does — all three of these officials have publicly supported repeal of DADT — I expect that the military will adapt. This is not their first experience with including new populations in the ranks. Both the racial integration of the services and the inclusion of women have been marked with problems over the decades, but both also demonstrate one of the real virtues of the American armed forces: given an order, they do their best to carry it out.

When they have, it will be another step toward a country in which all people enjoy the benefits and share the responsibilities of citizenship.

The nation will benefit from the continued service of gays and lesbians who otherwise would no longer be allowed to serve. The military will benefit from the end of a directive to lie in contradiction of its code of honor. And the culture will benefit as yet another artificial barrier to full citizenship falls.

Which barrier, I wonder, is next?


The Rev. Eric S. Anderson serves the 240+ congregations of the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ as Minister of Communications and Technology. A resident of Portland, he has served installed and interim pastoral positions in Maine and Connecticut, and is the editor of the ctucc.org website, ConnTact newspaper, and other Connecticut Conference publications. He has two children, Brendan and Rebekah.

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