We've Always Been Serving: Why Repeal of DADT Matters Anyway

After 18 long years, Don't Ask, Don't Tell has finally fallen, but there's still an anxiety that makes us treat gay relationships differently


Last week, the 18-year embarrassment of Don't Ask, Don't Tell came to an end. Throughout the United States Armed Forces, lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members were finally allowed to disclose the truth about their identities and relationships to those that they've served alongside in silence for years. Many took the opportunity to introduce colleagues to partners they had kept secret since enlisting.

Unsurprisingly, there was no rush on recruitment centers on the morning of Tuesday, September 20, the day the military began accepting applications to enlist from openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. (LGB; I'm leaving out the T because the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is not a victory for the trans community. Being transsexual or transgendered is still grounds for dishonorable discharge.) That enlistment did not increase suggests that most of the LGB Americans who want to be in the military already are. Neither Don't Ask, Don't Tell nor the outright ban on homosexuals prior to 1992 were actually keeping people from serving for reasons of sexuality. Anyone who cared deeply enough about serving his or her country -- or anyone who wanted the job for other reasons -- would omit any mention of non-standard orientation, or, in earlier years, simply lie.

Sadly, many in the LGB community are used to keeping this sort of information to themselves when they believe it can threaten their livelihoods. As far as large swaths of American society are concerned, LGB people are only acceptable when we hide that facet of our lives and pass for straight in public. I won't go so far as to say that we are required to lie about who we are -- my sexual preference and romantic relationship are an important part of my identity, but they are not the whole of it -- but downplaying our deviation from the norm is expected and consistently enforced. Many of us refrain from so much as holding hands in front of others, and have learned to perform the most convoluted syntactical acrobatics so as to avoid mentioning the gender of our partners in conversation. So, if forced to choose between pursuing a career we want and being honest about our sexual preference, it's not surprising that many of us have opted to get comfortable in the closet.

Since Don't Ask, Don't Tell never kept LGB Americans out of the military, but only caused them and their partners stress and heartache, why are social conservatives calling for its reinstatement? Why have Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty declared that if elected, they would attempt to bring DADT back from the dead? The policy didn't prevent homosexuals from serving -- hardly a laudable goal in the first place, but if gay and lesbian service members were an actual threat to unit cohesion, the armed forces would have felt the ill effects long before now. If gay men were unable to restrain themselves from sexually assaulting their straight colleagues (a central component of anti-gays-in-the-military rhetoric), they would already be doing so. They would have been doing so this whole time. Given that there always have been, and always will be, LGB individuals serving in the armed forces, what do the proponents of this now-defunct policy actually hope to achieve?

I've noted with interest that many of the news stories covering the repeal find room to mention that the military's rules of conduct regarding public displays of affection -- they're forbidden while a soldier is in uniform -- remain unchanged. When so many reporters bring up something that should go without saying, I suspect that it's indicative of an underlying anxiety. In this case, the elephant in the room is the pervasive belief in our society that being homosexual or bisexual is somehow much more sexual than being straight. This leads to other bizarre assumptions, like that gay soldiers won't be able to control themselves around their same-gendered colleagues, or that only the specter of unemployment can keep LGB people from spontaneously making out with each other on street corners.

This creates a double standard wherein same-sex relationships are inappropriate in a way that straight relationships are not. No reasonable person would be offended by a man putting a photo of his wife on his desk, but if the photo is of his husband, suddenly a pall of tawdriness covers the whole scene. A picture of a heterosexual partner suggests commitment, monogamy, evenings spent in front of the television with Vietnamese take-out; a picture of a homosexual partner suggests gay sex. And to a certain breed of homophobe, the only thing worse than having gay sex is causing someone else to think about gay sex. This is why they're uncomfortable allowing anyone to mention homosexuality in the military -- or school, or church, or in front of their grandparents: because they can't separate the everyday, innocuous content of LGB relationships from the disconcerting possibility of sexual deviance.

For the hundreds or thousands of gays and lesbians forced to hide their partners' existence for the past 18 years, the secrets they kept had less to do with uncontrolled sexuality than with the many small domestic joys that make up a long-term relationship. Reading the testimony of one lesbian military couple who were afraid even to go to the grocery store together, I felt tears come to my eyes. It's all too easy for me to imagine being the invisible partner in such an arrangement, and the thought breaks my heart. To force LGB service members to hide such an essential part of themselves is simply cruel -- there's no other word for it. Allowing that cruelty to come to an end need not threaten anyone's peace of mind, as long as they understand that the relationships which came to light last Tuesday are fundamentally the same as those which straight soldiers enjoy. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual soldiers are not demanding the right to wave their sex lives in anyone's faces. Like the rest of us, they simply want to take their partners grocery shopping without fear.

Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson.