Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented

U.S. president Bill Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was designed to end the practice of asking U.S. servicemembers and potential recruits their sexual orientation and then discharging them, or denying them entry into the services, if they were homosexual or bisexual or if they had engaged in homosexual acts. However, the policy has led to a significant increase in the number of military personnel discharged for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Summary of Event

The U.S. Congress passed an official ban on gays and lesbians in the military in 1950, when it enacted the Uniform Code of Military Justice Uniform Code of Military Justice
Military Justice, Uniform Code of (UCMJ), which also banned homosexual sex among servicemembers. Three decades later, the Defense Department issued Directive 1332.14 (Enlisted Administrative Separations, Enlisted Administrative Separations (1993) December 21, 1993), a policy change that made it more restrictive for enlisted homosexuals and bisexuals to serve in the military. The directive states that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” Between 1980 and 1990, the U.S. military expelled approximately fifteen hundred lesbian, gay, and bisexual soldiers, and those believed to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual because of a past sexual experience or experiences. [kw]Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented (Nov. 30, 1993)
[kw]Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented, Don’t Ask, (Nov. 30, 1993)
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[Dont Ask Dont Tell]
Military, U.S.[Military US];and service ban[service ban]
Discrimination;in U.S. military[US military]
[c]Military;Nov. 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented[2330]
[c]Civil rights;Nov. 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented[2330]
Clinton, Bill
Aspin, Leslie
Powell, Colin
Schindler, Allen R., Jr.
Nunn, Samuel
Frank, Barney

On October 27, 1991, Seaman Terry Helvey Helvey, Terry of the USS Belleau Wood
USS Belleau Wood beat to death Antigay violence;in U.S. military[US military]
Hate crime;in U.S. military[US military] fellow shipmate Petty Officer Allen Schindler, in a park in Sasebo, Japan. Schindler’s wounds were so severe that military police officers had difficulty identifying the body as that of Schindler. Schindler had informed the Belleau Wood’s captain one month before his murder that he was gay. He was awaiting discharge when word of his sexual orientation spread among the crew. Helvey later admitted to investigators that he hated homosexuals and that he did not regret his actions: “Schindler was gay and deserved it,” Helvey said. He pled guilty to “murder with intent to inflict great bodily harm” and was sentenced to life in a military prison.

GLBT rights groups described the murder as a classic example of gay bashing in the military. On May 29, 1992, during a campaign speech in California, presidential hopeful Bill Clinton promised, “If I’m the president of the United States, I think my job, rather than to inquire into the private lives of those who might serve, is to get the best people I can to serve this country.” On November 19, president-elect Clinton told reporters that he would come up with a policy that would consider that many lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, who had not been discharged, have served the U.S. military with distinction.

In late December, Clinton directed his nominee for secretary of defense, Leslie Aspin, to consider how the administration would lift the ban. Clinton’s efforts came under fire from members of Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, a Democrat, vehemently opposed changing the policy. On January 29, 1993, General Colin Powell, chair of the Joint Chiefs, along with the other five members of the Joint Chiefs staff, strongly voiced their concerns to the president during a two-hour Cabinet meeting, a meeting that came as callers opposed to changing the military’s policy flooded the White House and Pentagon switchboards.

Aspin argued that there was support neither in the military nor in Congress to lift the ban. On January 30, in response to growing opposition, Clinton announced a two-step compromise on the matter: Between February 1 and July 15, 2003, the military would stop asking recruits their sexual orientation, and on July 15, the Department of Defense would submit a draft executive order that would officially stop the exclusion of homosexuals and bisexuals Bisexuality;U.S. military and[US military and] from serving in the armed forces, if that exclusion were based solely on the servicemember’s sexual orientation. Additionally, both the Pentagon and Congress would study the matter to ascertain how best to implement the policy change.

The Pentagon was slow to develop a study, and tense hearings by the House of Representatives and the Senate Armed Services Committee skewed heavily toward opponents of the change. Congressional and military leaders ignored a 1993 report (Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy) Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy (Rand Corporation) by the private think tank, RAND Corporation, Rand Corporation, report on gays in military which found no justification to continue the exclusionary policy.

The emotional testimony of Col. Fred Peck, Peck, Fred who revealed that his son is gay (Peck had learned this one week prior to his testimony), weighed heavily in the considerations of congressional and military leaders. Peck argued that there was no place in the military for his gay son. He further claimed that the service would not only be too dangerous for his son but also that the cohesive bond among troops would be undermined with the presence of out gay servicemembers.

Aspin, however, soon threw his support behind the policy that would soon be called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, better known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which was a compromise measure proposed by Congressmember Barney Frank, an out gay Democrat from Massachusetts. The compromise would allow homosexuals and bisexuals to serve in the military as long as they keep their sexual orientation private. That is, the policy would theoretically end the practice of discharging lesbians, gays, and bisexuals solely on the basis of their “revealed” sexual orientation. The policy also was designed to end the practice of asking servicemembers their sexual orientation or aggressively investigating allegations that a servicemember is homosexual or bisexual, and it would end the policy of asking about the sexual orientation of potential recruits. Recruits who convey that they are homosexual or bisexual, or that they have had same-gender sexual experiences, would be barred from serving.

On November 30, 1993, Clinton signed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell into law. On December 23, 1993, he issued rules on how the military would handle the new policy, rules that left wide latitude to commanding officers. In February, 2000, “Don’t Harass” was added to the policy’s title by Pentagon officials.


Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has proven to be a failure. The most significant difference between the 1993 policy and the earlier policy of exclusion is that the new rules bar the military from asking directly if a person is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and it allows servicemembers to refuse to answer questions about their sexuality. However, the new policy explicitly states that commanders can infer homosexual conduct from homosexual status. That is, actions that raise the possibility that a servicemember is homosexual, from making progay or prolesbian statements to effeminate gestures, allow commanding officers to recommend discharge if a servicemember cannot disprove the allegations. Discharging a person because they are thought to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual (or for displaying a “propensity” to engage in same-gender sexual acts) is not new but is considered a change in policy because it now is part of a statute and not just a regulation.

The policy has led to the discharge of more than ten thousand servicemembers and has cost more than $200 million dollars to manage. In 1994, the court case Hensala v. U.S. Air Force
Hensala v. U.S. Air Force (1994)[Hensala v US Air Force] opened gay and lesbian servicemembers to significant financial liability for revealing their sexual orientation. A July, 2002, audit of the Air Force discovered forms that specifically asked recruits about their sexual orientation, despite a 1997 order from Secretary of Defense William Cohen reinforcing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

Furthermore, in 2002, although facing a significant shortage of Arabic language translators who were needed to process a backlog of communication intercepts from operatives of the terrorist group Al Qaeda, the Pentagon moved to discharge several translators suspected of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[Dont Ask Dont Tell]
Military, U.S.[Military US];and service ban[service ban]
Discrimination;in U.S. military[US military]

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Clinton, and C. Dixon Osburn. “Ending Discrimination in the U.S. Military.” In Everyday Activism, edited by Michael R. Stevenson and Jeanine C. Cogan. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Defense Force Management: DoD’s Policy on Homosexuals in the Military, edited by the Government Accounting Office. (GAO Code 381137/OSD Case 8983. March 9, 1992)
  • Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue Digital Database, Stanford University Law School.
  • Halley, Janet E. Don’t: A Reader’s Guide to the Military’s Anti-Gay Policy. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.
  • Herek, Gregory, and Aaron Belkin. “Sexual Orientation and Military Service: Prospects for Organizational and Individual Change in the United States.” In Military Life: The Psychology of Serving in Peace and Combat, edited by Thomas W. Britt, Amy B. Adler, and Carl Andrew Castro. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006.
  • Human Rights Watch. Uniform Discrimination: The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Policy of the U.S. Military. New York: Author, 2003.
  • Lehring, Gary. Officially Gay: The Political Construction of Sexuality in the U.S. Military. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
  • Rostker, Bernard D., et al. Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy. National Defense Research Institute, RAND Corporation, 1993.
  • Scott, Wilbur J., and Sandra Carson Stanley, eds. Gays and Lesbians in the Military: Issues, Concerns, and Contrasts. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1994.
  • Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network. Conduct Unbecoming: The Tenth Annual Report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (2004). http://www
  • _______. Survival Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass,” and Related Military Policies. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: Author, 2003.
  • Wolinsky, Marc, and Kenneth Sherrill, eds. Gays and the Military: Joseph Steffan Versus the United States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

March 15, 1919-1921: U.S. Navy Launches Sting Operation Against “Sexual Perverts”

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1976-1990: Army Reservist Ben-Shalom Sues for Reinstatement

May-August, 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch Hunt

May 3, 1989: Watkins v. United States Army Reinstates Gay Soldier

1990, 1994: Coming Out Under Fire Documents Gay and Lesbian Military Veterans

August 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams

October, 1992: Canadian Military Lifts Its Ban on Gays and Lesbians

January 12, 2000: United Kingdom Lifts Ban on Gays and Lesbians in the Military