LGBTQ Agenda: Pentagon office finds fears of gay service were unfounded, report says

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday October 4, 2022
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President Barack Obama signs DADT repeal legislation, December 22, 2010. Left to right: Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Zoe Dunning, Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III, Eric F. Alva, President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Patrick J. Murphy, Representative Susan Davis, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, and Senator Susan M. Collins. Photo: From "Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell" report
President Barack Obama signs DADT repeal legislation, December 22, 2010. Left to right: Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Zoe Dunning, Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III, Eric F. Alva, President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Patrick J. Murphy, Representative Susan Davis, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, and Senator Susan M. Collins. Photo: From "Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell" report

In the end, it was all much ado about nothing. That was the conclusion of a report issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the eight member body comprised of the nation's top military brass who advise the president, the secretary of defense, and other leaders, on security, in a 196-page report on the repealing of the military's notorious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in 2011.

In related news, the Palm Center, which for 24 years published reports and research about LGBTQ military service bans, officially closed its doors September 30. The independent research institute, which was previously affiliated with UC Santa Barbara but later based in San Francisco, worked with partner organizations and was prominent during the DADT debates.

It issued a news release about the new report last month.

The Pentagon report, "Repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell: A Historical Perspective from the Joint Chiefs of Staff" was written in 2021, and was compiled by the Joint History and Research Office, which is charged with creating a "record of activities of the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Staff and to capture and document all aspects of joint operations conducted by the Armed Forces of the United States," according to its website.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was then-President Bill Clinton's ultimately unsuccessful effort to find a middle ground between the military's discriminatory policy of LGBTQ exclusion from the armed forces enacted in 1994, and allowing them to serve. Under DADT, the military was forbidden to from opening investigations into military personnel's sexual orientations without having witnessed violations of policy forbidding homosexual behavior. By the same token, LGBTQ personnel were prohibited from being open about themselves and risked dishonorable discharges if they were.

In other words, LGBTQs could serve if they remained closeted and celibate.

The policy was disastrous for the more than 13,000 soldiers discharged during its 17-year run and ended up costing the military more than half-a-billion dollars, according to estimates by the Government Accountability Office and the Palm Center, an independent think tank that examined the effects of U.S. military personnel policy with a focus on LGBTQ populations. In fact, if all the discharges and enforcement of anti-LGBTQ policy since the Carter administration were taken into account, the total cost would come to more than $1 billion, according to the Palm Center.

Arguments for maintaining the policy long centered around top brass' fears that allowing out personnel to serve would undermine unit solidarity and cohesion, according to the report. In a meeting with Clinton in 1993, General Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the president that some discrimination was necessary for the good of the armed forces.

Because of that, "homosexuality is a problem for us," Powell stated, according to the report. "Sodomy is against the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] and contrary to the law in 24 states and the District of Columbia. This law was given to us by Congress. To go in this direction, we're not sure is reflective of the views of society."

According to the report, Powell "then listed the reasons why the military was obliged to discharge homosexuals: to abide by legal requirements, to avoid discord, to mitigate health risks, and, most important, to observe privacy concerns that were widely held throughout the extended military community."

It was an argument many military leaders had difficulty parting with but, as is known now, time was not on their side. Nor was the need to maintain capable, specialized forces. However, in what might now be seen as a classic case of pandering to one's audience, Clinton told the chiefs, "I'm not doing this for gay groups," the report quoted him, "I am doing it for people who are gay and want to serve their country. ... The people I would like to keep wouldn't show up for a Queer Nation parade."

The report noted that "[b]y choosing not to ask about an individual's sexual orientation, [Clinton] thought, they could eliminate the need for homosexuals to mislead and thereby enhance the dignity of their service; barring cases involving declaration, that approach would limit the issue of homosexuality to matters of conduct."

At the time Powell and the Joint Chiefs were meeting with Clinton to discuss the military's exclusionary policy, the military was struggling to attract the caliber of enlistees they needed.

According to a 2010 report by author and historian Nathaniel Frank, then a senior research fellow at the Palm Center, military capabilities were being harmed by DADT as gay and lesbian soldiers and personnel were drummed from service.

"The clearest costs of 'don't ask, don't tell' are the thousands of qualified service members who are discharged because of the policy, a number which reached 13,500 in fiscal year 2009," Frank wrote.

Among 757 personnel forced out between 1994 and 2003 were "voice interceptors, interrogators, translators, explosive ordnance disposal specialists, signal intelligence analysts, and missile and cryptologic technicians," the report continued. These were among the categories which were losing the most qualified personnel and for which the military was most in need.

This was taking place as the United States found itself drawn ever more deeply into conflict in the Middle East. To add insult to injury, as the military dispensed with highly skilled but gay soldiers, they were struggling to replace them, and began to rely on highly unskilled or simply inappropriate recruits, according to the report.

"Rather than hiring or retaining competent gay troops," the report stated, "the military began to hire less competent recruits, including those who scored poorly on military aptitude test and enlistees who were granted 'moral waivers' — invitations to enlist despite a prior record of criminal activity or substance abuse that would normally prohibit entry, including murder, kidnapping, and 'making terrorist threats.' In 2005 the army increased by nearly 50% the number of new recruits it granted moral waivers. Between 2003 and 2006, 4,230 convicted felons, 43,977 individuals convicted of serious misdemeanors, including assault, and 58,561 illegal drug abusers were allowed to enlist. According to GAO, soldiers who are granted moral waivers are more likely to be discharged for misconduct than those who are not."

But, by driving out its gay and lesbian personnel in addition to bringing highly unqualified people on board, the military was undermining its appeal to the public from which it sought recruits, the report noted. Its discriminatory policies were drawing immense criticism and, in 2005, it found itself banned from many school campuses, as a result.

Others, Frank's report noted, simply saw the military as behind the times.

"The figures also do not count an untold number of young Americans who fail to consider joining the military because — gay or straight — they regard the military as an intolerant and outdated institution because of its discriminatory policy against gay Americans," Frank wrote.

Eventually, even DADT would be sidelined. Under President Barack Obama, the Clinton-era policy was ended by congressional action in 2010 — and went into effect in September 2011 — but not without resistance from the Joint Chiefs of Staff until almost the very end. In 2010, a number of the chiefs were still worried about the effect of repeal of DADT on troops still deeply entrenched in war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While Republican objections to repeal had been strong all along, even some Democrats expressed concern.

The late Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) was worried repeal was happening too quickly and insisted on the need "to focus on the military's effectiveness, rather than the 'broader social issues being debated in our society at large.'"

More notably, nearly everyone agreed that they didn't want the matter to play itself out in the courts, as was happening in California in a lawsuit against DADT brought about by the conservative LGBTQ group Log Cabin Republicans. That case wound its way through District Court, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and even made it as far as the U.S. Supreme Court — which denied an application by the Log Cabin Republicans to vacate a stay put in place by the 9th Circuit — before finally being approved by the 9th Circuit almost eight months later. The repeal of DADT by Congress in December 2010, however, rendered the court's actions moot.

For Palm Center director Aaron Belkin, the report only verifies what the organization had argued all along.

"Time and again, opponents of equality have claimed that inclusion would harm America's most important institutions and threaten the nation itself," stated Belkin. "And time and again, that's turned out to be false. This official military study makes clear the yawning gap between fearmongering and reality, and should guide dialogue about similar claims in the present, such as fears that inclusion for transgender Americans is somehow a threat to our society."

Palm Center closes

With the closure of the Palm Center, Belkin, a gay man and political science professor who founded the Palm Center, reflected on what his time leading the think tank meant to him.

"We worked with brilliant and generous partners, allies, center staff, veterans, and service members to show that facts matter, that discrimination undermines our country, and that equality makes it better," he stated in a release. "I'll be forever grateful for this opportunity to help make the world a little more just."

In addition to its work on DADT repeal, the Palm Center also paved the way for repeal of the military's transgender ban by dismantling medical arguments that sustained discrimination, the release noted.

Former President Donald Trump instituted a ban on trans military members in 2017. President Joe Biden rescinded it shortly after he took office in 2021.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact Eric Burkett at [email protected]

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