Don't ask, don't tell

Don't ask, don't tell is the common term for the current law (Public Law 103-160) prohibiting openly gay people from serving in the United States armed forces.

It was introduced as a compromise measure in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, who while campaigning for the Presidency had promised to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, while conservatives wanted a complete ban. The actual policy was crafted by Colin Powell and has been maintained by Clinton's successor, George W. Bush. The policy requires that as long as homosexual or bisexual men and women in the military hide their sexual orientation, commanders won't try to find them out. Many see the policy as a failure and it is opposed by a percentage of pro- and anti-gay advocates alike.

"Sexual orientation will not be a bar to service unless manifested by homosexual conduct. The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct, which is defined as a homosexual act, a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual, or a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender."
—quoted in "The Pentagon's New Policy Guidelines on Homosexuals in the Military", The New York Times (July 201993), p.A14.


The levels with which this prejudice has been elevated to active attempts to segregate and then remove homosexuals from military service has varied greatly from time to time, especially at the official level. Informally, homosexuals and suspected homosexuals were often the target of "blanket parties", in which several other service members during the night in the barracks first covered the face of the victim with a blanket so he could not see any of his attackers and then beat him, often quite severely and occasionally even fatally. The frequency of these occurrences is said to be related at least in part to whether a "command climate" indifferent or favorable to the harassment of suspected homosexuals exists. Formal efforts to remove homosexuals have varied in their level of emphasis and tenacity between services, and at one time seemed to be somewhat linked to whether personnel shortages existed, at which point there was sometimes more tolerance (up to a point), and whether there was an abundance of manpower, in which case there was often more pressure to remove all active and even suspected homosexuals.

Homosexual acts have always been technically illegal in the U.S. military. "Sodomy" has been one of the punitive articles (offenses) enumerated under the Uniform Code of Military Justice since its adoption in 1951, and before that was listed in its predecessor, the Articles of War. Justification for this has been based in part on the idea that homosexuals posed a security risk. However, this "risk" has generally been based on the concept that homosexuals could easily be blackmailed by an enemy or a potential enemy to perform treasonable acts on the basis of the fear of their sexual orientation being exposed, which the current policy would seemingly heighten rather than lessen. Another basis for separation of homosexuals from service is that their presence is found to be objectionable by many heterosexual service members. Homosexual rights advocates respond that this was formerly the basis for racial segregation in the services, as many white service members, especially initially, objected to the presence of black and other minority members, and that cannot be a legal or moral basis for banning homosexuals from service. All, however, would admit that sexual harassment of any sort would be incompatible with the "good order and discipline" that military service demands, and homosexual rights activists stress that they are not advocating the tolerance of homosexual harassment, or any other form of harassment.

Current arguments against allowing homosexuals in the military stem from the idea of "military readiness". The argument, in short, is that allowing homosexuals to serve would disrupt "unit cohesion" by introducing an element of sexual tension into single-sex military units. This is related to the argument against allowing mixed-gender military units. Lately, however, this argument has come under fire, not only on the grounds that discrimination is counterproductive and immoral, but because the policy of excluding homosexuals makes it difficult for the army to meet recruiting goals. Since the policy has been instituted, many skilled translators, for instance, have been dismissed.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell has been upheld five times in court challenges since its introduction. However, in the wake of the historic Supreme Court decision of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), invalidating criminal prohibitions of homosexual sex, possibly with much broader implications for other proscriptions against homosexuality, several new lawsuits have been filed.


Statistics on the number of persons discharged from the military in the years since the policy was first introduced (1993) show that more people are discharged now than were before. Also, more of these people are given honorable discharges than was the case before.

From Servicemembers Legal Defense Network - Annual Gay Discharges Under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue, Don't Harass"
Year Coast Guard Marines Navy Army Air Force Total

* Breakdown of discharges by service branch not available

Additionally, in February 2005, the Government Accountability Office released estimates on the cost of the policy to the U.S. government, totalling nearly $200 million since 1993.

Military Readiness Enhancement Act

On April 5, 2005, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican member of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations became a cosponsor of the bill, joining Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Jim Kolbe of Arizona (both House Republicans) and 70 Democrats in sponsoring the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would end Don't Ask, Don't Tell. "We've tried the policy. I don't think it works. And we've spent a lot of money enforcing it," she said. "We investigate people. Bring them up on charges. Basically wreck their lives... People who've signed up to serve our country. We should be thanking them." She called arguments against gays serving openly "the same kind of talk we heard about women [and blacks]."

"The odds [of passage] are very small, unless the top military brass would embrace it," Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat said, comparing the odds to the chances of snow in South Florida. Still, Ros-Lehtinen says she will maintain support for the bill until it passes. [1] (

Situation in Other Countries

Most other Western military forces have now removed bans on homosexuals (with strict policies on sexual harassment). The U.K. armed forces lifted its ban on gay people in 2000.


More generally, "Don't ask, don't tell" describes any instance in which one person must keep their sexual orientation and any related attributes a secret, and another person would be uncomfortable knowing it but deliberately lying would be undesirable. Applicable statements would be "I do not wish to know," or after being told "I would rather not have known it." This is part of a more general tendency towards taking sexual identity as identity.


  • Butler, Judith (1997). Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415915880.

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