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Lesbians and Gay Men in the Military


The ban on lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals in the military is cruel and petty, and it needlessly deprives the overworked U.S. Armed Forces of personnel.
Headstone of Gay Vietnam Veteran

The headstone of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich (1943-1988), a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was later dishonorably discharged after military investigators learned of his sexual orientation. He is buried in the Congressional Cemetery.

Photo: Copyright © 2005 David B. King. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The Big Question

Should the ban on lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals in the U.S. Armed Forces be overturned?

What is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?

The "don't ask, don't tell" policy, implemented by President Bill Clinton in 1993, is a slight improvement over the old policy (which could be described as "ask, but don't tell"). Under the old policy, closeted lesbian, gay, and bisexual officers were subjected to investigation and, if found "guilty," would be dishonorably discharged immediately, depriving them of pension and other benefits regardless of the duration of their military service. Now, non-heterosexual officers are still subject to dishonorable discharge (and the subsequent loss of pension and other benefits) if officials learn of their sexual orientation, but officials are prohibited from conducting specific investigations into the sexual orientation of personnel. In practical terms, it isn't much of an improvement; under the current policy, closeted lesbian, gay, and bisexual officers have to just cross their fingers and hope investigators don't happen to catch wind of their sexual orientation.

What is the Cost of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?

In 2005, the Congressional Accounting Office estimated that the policy had cost the military approximately $200 million over a 12-year period. Over 11,000 military personnel have been discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" and, according to the Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network, approximately 41,000 potential recruits are presently excluded from military service.

Do Other Countries Allow Non-Heterosexuals to Serve in the Military?

Yes. Nearly every major western democracy allows lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals to serve openly in the military, and have suffered no discernible adverse consequences as a result. This list includes Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Poland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom, among many others. Examples of countries that ban non-heterosexuals from military service include Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Venezuela--and the United States, of course.

How Can This Policy Be Changed?

This is one of the few policies that can be changed by any sitting President without congressional assistance. All the President has to do is issue an executive order, and the ban will be rescinded. President Clinton promised to do this prior to his election in 1992, then later reneged on his promise. President Bush has indicated that he supports "don't ask, don't tell."
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