Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Debating The Gay Ban In The Military

by Aaron Belkin and Geoffrey Bateman, Editors Lynne Rienner Publishers January 1, 2003


A definitive edited volume of lively debate, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Debating the Gay Ban in the Military presents the views of the leading scholars on sexual orientation and the military. This new and unprecedented anthology, published on the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, breaks new ground on U.S. military readiness in a time of war. For the first time, this book brings together a critical mass of experts of different points of view to debate whether the U.S. military’s gay ban is based on military necessity or prejudice.


The volume begins with a summary of major arguments for and against allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly and with a discussion of special burdens that conservatives and liberals bear as they advance their claims. In Chapter Two, “History Repeating Itself: A Historical Overview of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Military Before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” historian Timothy Haggerty discusses the changing ways in which the U.S. military has addressed the issue of homosexuality in the armed forces and traces major shifts in policy from World War I through President Clinton’s 1993 attempt to lift the ban. Haggerty’s discussion demonstrates how the military’s understanding of homosexual identity has shifted away from criminal and medical models and considers the relationship between the military’s management of sexual identity and the larger political and cultural context in the United States with regard to homosexuality.

The chapters following this historical overview present four debates concerning various aspects of the gay ban that were transcribed from an international conference on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Held at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco in December 2000, this public debate was the first of its kind and included the presentations of a number of key experts on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” military sociology, and sexuality and gender in the military, including C. Dixon Osburn, Christopher Dandeker, David Segal, and Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert. Each scholar gave a short presentation in his or her area of expertise as it related to the larger evaluation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and after each group of presentations, a moderated and lively discussion followed.

Chapter Three, “Does the Gay Ban Preserve Soldiers’ Privacy?” considers the ban in terms of its ability to preserve soldiers’ privacy, especially the privacy of heterosexual men. Much has been made of the argument that lifting the gay ban would undermine heterosexual privacy in military barracks and showers. Conference participants debate this argument and discuss the need to understand anxieties that privacy concerns represent and why they carry so much rhetorical power.

In Chapter Four, “Does ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Preserve Unit Cohesion?” the conference participants present the most current and relevant data about the impact gay and lesbian service members have on unit cohesion. Panelists survey current attitudes toward homosexuality in the military, summarize the vast literature on cohesion and its relation to homosexuality, and discuss the change in demographics in the U.S. military and the impact this has on unit cohesion as in times of conflict and peace.

Chapter Five, “Are Foreign Military Experiences relevant to the United States?” offers an in-depth discussion of what the U.S. can learn from foreign militaries experiences with lifting their gay bans. High-ranking officials from Australia and New Zealand, as well as active-duty and former military personnel from Israel and the United Kingdom, share their perspectives on the lifting of gay bans in their countries. U.S. and foreign scholars who study these militaries round out the discussion and offer a broad range of opinions on whether the U.S. can look to foreign militaries as examples.

Chapter Six asks “What Does ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Cost?” and presents two ways in which to evaluate the costs of the ban. The first addresses the literal costs in terms of how much money and resources the U.S. military has expended enforcing the policy. This presentation also considers the cost imposed upon the thousands of gay and lesbian personnel who have been dismissed from the military because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The second part of this section looks to the more general costs to our society with regard to the deference civilian courts have made to military decisions.

In Chapter Seven, two service members narrate their experiences of serving in the military, coming out as a gay, and being dismissed under the policies of the United States and the former policies of the United Kingdom. Steve May and Rob Nunn testify to the realities of being gay in the military and the difficulties the ban presented them.

The final chapter summarizes the day’s debate and probes for topics of research that scholars and students might undertake. Included in the appendix of this volume is the text of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”


“An important contribution to the literature on lesbians and gays in the military … From beginning to end, it is well written, well organized, and tightly conceived in every way.”

—Craig Rimmerman,
Hobart and William Smith Colleges

“The book has something for almost every reader—a brief history of gays in the military, serious reasoned commentary on the topic, and heartfelt personal testimonials. All in all it is a good read on an increasingly important and relevant topic.”

—Juanita M. Firestone,
University of Texas at San Antonio


Lynn Eden: … I would like to know, have you changed your mind? I gather you have. How did you change your mind? What was your process? As a serious academic, how did you deal intellectually with making a prediction that did not come true? …

Christopher Dandeker: … I suspect I will not be the first or the last to revise one’s opinion in the light of evidence, argument, and discussion.

Lynn Eden: Most people do not.

Christopher Dandeker: Well, there we are. However, one of the issues in dispute, both then and now, and indeed during the discussions today, is what we mean precisely by open integration. In relation to the result of the European Court of Human Rights decision in the British case, I would have been much more cautious and indeed possibly hostile to the code of conduct had it not included levers within those regulations that legally allow the exclusion of ideologues who wish to place gay identity before professional identity. This crucial point distinguishes varieties of open integration. Once I worked out that particular view, then as a citizen as well as an academic, I was able to feel more relaxed about a policy that the core of the armed services could find acceptable. I do not mean they are waving flags saying, “This is great!” The answer to your first question depends on what open integration means, and in the U.S. the attitudes towards this question will hinge on exactly the same issue.

There are two cross-cutting issues here. The British case showed that you are foolish if you expect a successful policy to be built on regulations or law alone. It is a mistake to do so. If you argue that we have to base our policy on laws and regulations alone, because we are legalistic freaks in the United States, then, fine, but that is your problem. For the moment, the policy in the United Kingdom works because people recognize that commanding officers apply the code with discretion, and gay service members also see the need for discretion or even reticence. If in doubt, do not flaunt it. If in doubt, do not come out. If you do come out, negotiate it successfully, not at the abstract level, but at the concrete level …