In Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' Implementation Matters

The House just passed a stand-alone repeal of the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" statute forcing gays and lesbians into silent military service this past week. The issue now heads to a final showdown in the Senate.

There are two key substantive issues that affect the politics: How would repeal be implemented and what would be the impact of repeal if properly implemented?

Critics of repeal, such as Senator John McCain, get the issues backward: They focus on the impact as if careful implementation had not taken place.

They ignore that the U.S. military has, in the past, made two momentous and largely successful transitions in the face of opposition among the uniformed force: racial integration and gender integration. They also ignore successful transitions in other nations, which have explicitly recognized gays and lesbians in the military: The Netherlands (1974), Australia (1992), Canada (1992), Israel (1998), UK (2000), and Germany (2000). These transitions include troops in combat.

Most importantly, they ignore the careful analyses of how to address allegedly controversial implementation problems in gay and lesbian integration, which are contained in two recent studies: the Pentagon's 150 page "Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Rand Corporation's report on "Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy," prepared for the Secretary of Defense as part of the DADT repeal review.

Both reports candidly and thoughtfully address sensitive issues raised by repeal (although the recommendations will hardly please everyone). Both should be read (again?) by every moderate Republican senator undecided about whether to be the 60th vote for cloture and to allow Senate repeal to go forward. And both should be read by citizens who want to get behind the "culture war" headlines and learn about how pluralism and diversity are handled in the disciplined, rule-bound armed services.

Here is a brief look at how the Pentagon proposes to handle some of those controversial issues raised about gay and lesbian integration.

What is the potential for unprofessional relationships between service members; public displays of affection, dress and appearance; and acts of violence, harassment or disrespect between homosexual and heterosexual members?

The current military standards of conduct--the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Service regulations and policies, and customs and traditions--already address these issues for all in the uniformed forces. Such standards of conduct, says the Pentagon report, must be applied uniformly without regard to sexual orientation and with appropriate guidance to commanders that general tools for handling such issues are adequate.

How should the Armed Forces handle Service members who raise religious objections to homosexuality--and chaplains whose religion condemns homosexuality?

As to the service members, the Pentagon report says:

...the reality is that in today's U.S. military, people of sharply different moral values and religious convictions--including those who believe that abortion is murder and those who do not, those who believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and those who do not--live and fight together on a daily basis... Service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs; they must, however, continue to respect and serve with others who hold different views and beliefs

As has long been the tradition of forces reflecting America's diversity.

As to the 3,000 chaplains who currently serve, the report makes clear that service chaplains under existing policies will not be required to perform a religious role inconsistent with their faith, but that the chaplain's fundamental role is to "care for all Service members" including those with no faith or different religious faiths as requested. This will not change--as chaplains may minister to soldiers who, under their faith, "sin" in other ways.

What about Service members who have reluctance to share living quarters or bathroom facilities with someone known to be gay or lesbian?

The Pentagon report strongly recommends against segregated living or bathing facilities. As the report says, such segregation would "do more harm than good for unit cohesion, create a climate of stigmatization and isolation and be impossible to enforce or administer unless service members are required to disclose their sexual orientation" (and, says the report, many are not likely to do so). The report notes that some of these concerns are based on stereotypes of gays and lesbians (as "predators," for example), which are false. "The reality is that people of different sexual orientation use shower and bathroom facilities together every day in hundreds of thousands of college dorms, college and high school gyms, professional sports locker rooms, police and fire stations and athletic clubs."

Should sexual orientation be a protected class--like race, color, religion, sex or national origin--in Armed Services Equal Opportunity Programs, which are handled through a special Military Equal Opportunity program, and are the focus of diversity initiatives, and are tracked as "identifiers" in Service personnel systems?

The report says "no," gays and lesbians should not be a special protected class under armed services equal opportunity programs. The Department of Defense should make clear that sexual orientation may not be a factor in accession, promotion or other personnel decisions. Gay and lesbian Service members must be evaluated on individual merit and protected from harassment or abuse. Complaints should be lodged with the chain of command or the inspector general. The rationale (compromise) behind this report recommendation is that integration will proceed much more effectively if service members see repeal of DADT as simply putting gays and lesbians on equal footing with others, with the same equal opportunity, and not receiving special status.

Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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