Happy birthday, bigotry! May you never rise again. This month marks the 24th anniversary of Bill Clinton issuing the order to block LGBT people from serving in the military, a policy that lasted nearly 18 years until Democrats were able to overturn it. On this dark day, let’s look back on why Clinton instituted ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in the first place — and how things could have been far, far worse.
A long history of discrimination
President Clinton wasn’t the first American leader to block LGBTQ people from the military. Homosexuality was grounds for discharge in the 1700s, though the terminology has varied over the years. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we adopted concepts and terms around sexual orientation, and during World War II the Army established homosexuality as a trait that could disqualify a person from service.
Following the war, gay soldiers were sent to hospitals, given a psychiatric exam and then kicked out.
The Army was very inconsistent in its enforcement, though a report in 1957 identified homosexuality as “wrong” and “evil.” When the armed forces had difficulty recruiting people, they found excuses to look the other way and accept queer servicemembers.
This “no gays” policy received heightened attention in 1975 when Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a Vietnam War vet and Purple Heart recipient, appeared on the cover of Time. The cover included his photo, in uniform, and said “I am a homosexual.” He immediately became one of the most visible faces of the gay rights movement.
Over the ensuing decades, queer soldiers established support networks to connect with each other. Nevertheless, the ban remained in place, even after a 1992 study that pegged the cost at $27 million per year.
‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was an unfortunate compromise
During the 1992 presidential campaign, open military service for queer people emerged as a wedge issue that politicians could exploit to divide voters. Clinton initially campaigned on a promise to overturn the ban, but homophobes in the military pushed back.
Republicans were united in their opposition to equality, but many Democrats joined them as well. Republicans pushed hard to maintain the ban and inserted language leading to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in a defense bill. Clinton signed it into law, and it was regarded as a “compromise” — though it really offered little of value to queer people.
As a result of the ban, the military wasn’t allowed to ask people about their sexual orientation. But once there was even a sliver of evidence that a person was not heterosexual, that was enough to end their military career.
It took two decades to dismantle ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
It took nearly 20 years to undo ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ during which time countless people were harmed. Various lawsuits were attempted and failed on behalf of the estimated 65,000 queer men and women serving in secrecy.
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Finally, in 2010, a defense bill contained language to end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ John McCain attempted to block it, but it soon passed. In September of 2011, it was gone for good. Outcomes have been extensively monitored over the intervening years, with no reported negative effects.
But bigotry continues in the military still. Republicans, aided by Donald Trump and Mike Pence, are fighting to prevent trans people from serving, despite evidence that doing so is extremely expensive.
As usual, the lessons of the past are lost on those with an anti-LGBTQ agenda.