Time to Ask and Tell!

“To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Armed Forces,” Pres. Truman wrote to Lt. Robert Ricks in 1945, “I extend the heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation.” Ricks, a young Army Air Force navigator who had survived several months in Dachau as a prisoner of war, had certainly earned the nation’s gratitude. The note from Truman was mailed to millions of American GIs at the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of them, like Ricks, were gay.

This isn’t news, of course. It’s history. So it’s time to acknowledge the historic service of veterans like Robert Ricks as Congress considers the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, a law that would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The evolution of military policies toward gays and lesbians and the inconsistent enforcement of these polices suggest that it’s time to bring this law into the 21st century by lifting the ban.

Behind the official ban on open gay military service lies a policy that has been continually reconsidered and revised. Before the 1940s, the Department of War assumed that gays would make bad soldiers because of stereotypes of effeminacy. Military men caught committing sodomy faced courts-martial. During World War II, however, military manpower needs led to a new policy of treating homosexuality as a psychological problem. Some gays were dishonorably discharged after psychological evaluations, but thousands more were retained by the armed forces that tacitly recognized the value of gay troops.

The Cold War brought a new set of regulations and a new rationale for the ban. The creation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951 explicitly forbade “unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same or opposite sex.” Gays were seen as vulnerable to blackmail and therefore seen as security risks. Yet no gay American soldiers or civil servants ever revealed state secrets to keep from being publicly outed. In fact, gay and lesbian service personnel served valiantly (if quietly) in Korea and throughout the Cold War. “There have been many known instances of [homosexual] individuals who have served honorably and well,” a Navy report acknowledged in 1957, but still, the ban persisted.

During the Vietnam War era, the Pentagon continued to view homosexuality as a “moral defect,” so homosexuals were one of the few groups of able-bodied young men theoretically ineligible for the draft. Anti-war groups even counseled young, straight men to become “hoaxosexuals” as a way of avoiding service. Ironically, one group of young men and women who didn’t want the military to think that they were homosexuals were gay military personnel proudly serving their country.

Court challenges by gay and lesbian veterans throughout the 1970s had little immediate impact on the ban, but in 1981 the Pentagon reconsidered its policy on homosexuality. Even though the military continued to argue that homosexuality was “incompatible with military service,” gay and lesbian personnel began receiving honorable discharges, another tacit recognition of their distinguished service records.

In 1988 the Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center, a nonpartisan military policy think tank, released a study finding that homosexuality “was unrelated to job performance in the same way as being left- or right-handed,” and when Dick Cheney became Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush he opposed a ban on gay civilian employees in the Pentagon.

Given this bipartisan support for reconsidering the issue of gays in the military, Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to lift the ban seems much less radical than it may have appeared to the public in 1992. In this light, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was simply a public acknowledgment of something that military policymakers had long known to be true — that gay troops fight just as well as straight ones.

With hearings starting this spring, congressional debates about repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will focus on the ban’s financial costs (nearly $200 million by conservative estimates), the inefficiencies of training replacements for gay Arabic and Farsi translators (dozens of whom have been discharged since 9/11), and the rising number of troops (73 percent in recent polls) who say that serving with gays is a non-issue. In addition to these questions of military efficiency and effectiveness, we should consider the historical precedents for lifting the ban.

Just a few years after he thanked gay World War II veterans like Robert Ricks for their service, President Truman issued a now famous executive order to desegregate the American military. Though controversial at the time, Truman’s decision helped him secure a victory in the presidential election of 1948, and it had a profound impact on the national conversation about race. It seems obvious today that Truman’s historic decision overturned decades of bad military policy based on racial prejudice and discrimination.

This year, Congress has a similar historic opportunity. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will “extend the heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation” to gay and lesbian troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq today as well as to the hundreds of thousands of gay veterans who’ve answered the call of duty in every major military conflict since World War II. It’s time to honor the courage, commitment, and sacrifices of all Americans in the armed forces. It’s time to lift the ban.

Steve Estes is a professor of history at Sonoma State University. He is the author of I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood and the Civil Rights Movement and the editor of Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out