A Centrist Approach to Reforming Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Note: This post was written by a Secure Nation guest author.

Few issues provide a more vivid illustration of the partisanship in Washington than the controversy over what to do about the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law. The right maintains that President Clinton’s 1993 compromise is working, and that it is fine for 0% of military units to be gay-friendly for the foreseeable future. The left maintains that 100% of units should be gay-friendly in a year.

Both positions are demonstrably silly. The 0% position of the right is silly because it is hard to find anyone who will argue that it is a problem for a military lawyer or doctor to be gay. The 100% position of the left is silly because the military is struggling, even today, with how to welcome women on submarines. Making submarines gay-friendly would be even harder. The Navy is planning to accommodate women on submarines by providing separate accommodations that ensure their privacy from men. Accommodating gays in the same way in the close confines of submarines would be more complicated logistically. The submarine privacy issue was the clincher argument used to prevent President Clinton’s 100% solution in 1993.

Instead of these two extreme positions, there is a centrist approach to the DADT issue that would begin progress on gays in the military much faster. Congress could replace DADT with instructions for the Secretary of Defense to open up units to gays if they have the sexual privacy infrastructure to accommodate them. A similar incremental approach was used to integrate women into regular military units. Although there have been costs to set up the necessary privacy infrastructure to accommodate women, the incremental approach has been quite successful, and the privacy infrastructure created will make it easy to accommodate gays immediately in a large number of units. Under this approach, many units could be gay-friendly within months, and even more next year.

This incremental approach is a good approximation of what actually happened after courts ordered the British military to open up 100% to gays. Although de jure there was immediate full access for gays, de facto an unspoken DADT remained in many units, particularly in the early years. The details were not well publicized since the remaining de facto DADT was a violation of the court order. But despite the push back against the court order, the openness to gays has continued to improve.

Taking the incremental approach to gays in the military may seem like a go-slow approach, but in practice it is likely to be the fastest and most trouble-free way to begin opening up units to gays. In contrast, under the plans of either the left or the right, no units would be opened this year. On the right, the proposal is to wait until US troops are not very involved in military conflicts, something that is unlikely to happen soon. On the left, the Obama administration has proposed to wait for a Pentagon report by the end of the year, a time at which the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will be reduced or gone completely, severely hampering any action on DADT. Congress needs to act much sooner in a centrist way if DADT is to be reformed soon.

The issue of gays in the military is emotional in part because it is complicated, and many of the analogies for thinking about it are faulty. In some ways it is similar to integrating blacks into the military, but in other ways it is similar to integrating women into the military. The complicated nature of the issue has made it very easy for both the left and right to accuse the other of bigotry or social engineering, forcing members of the military to avoid the issue so as not to be caught in the middle of a culture war.

But it is not just the military that is bothered by the politicizing the issue. To the public, the extreme positions of the left and right are another example of the bitter partisan atmosphere in Washington. Political observers on both the left and the right saw in the election of Scott Brown to the Senate the message that people wanted Congress to act sensibly from the center. As a result of riding this wave of discontent, Brown is well positioned to use his independence and stature to break the partisan logjam on this issue. He is likely to get a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is taking the lead on DADT reform. He has worked for decades as a military lawyer, and could speak with conviction in saying that someone gay could have done that job with no problem. It is now possible to imagine a sensible centrist approach to the DADT issue actually being championed in Congress and passing.

Michael Segal runs the AdvocatesForROTC.org site, the umbrella site for groups promoting an atmosphere supportive of ROTC on college campuses. The views expressed are his own; the positions of the constituent groups on DADT fill the full range discussed above.


15 thoughts on “A Centrist Approach to Reforming Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

  1. repsac3 says:

    “the sexual privacy infrastructure to accommodate them”

    I’m not sure I understand… Is the author suggesting separate showers, & perhaps living quarters too, so the straight men/women can be naked when the situation calls for it, without the homosexual men/women seeing them that way (& perhaps “that” way)?

    I’d think the logistics alone would be prohibitive (and if I may, I think the idea kinda bows to the crazy (& somewhat bigoted) notion that the only thing on the gay mind is sex, and if they see your junk, you’re automatically a target of their insatiable lust.)

    I’m not suggesting that the author is wrong (or a bigot), but I think his proposal may reach too far to comfort those who have “a fear of the unknown” (or worse) where gay folks are concerned.

    While I suspect that many (most) currently serving gay men won’t stand up and “tell” in the wake of the repeal of DADT, the ones who do will be doing a great service to the military, by showing that the author’s proposal isn’t all that necessary, because gay servicemen have been scrubbing up under the next shower all along, without incident.

    Of course, if I’m misunderstanding what the “sexual privacy infrastructure” is meant to denote…

  2. @repsac3:

    What I envision as a sexual privacy infrastructure is the sort of thing we’ve been seeing on college campuses in recent decades – a shift towards individual accommodations such as individual showers so it doesn’t matter whether the other person is of a different gender and doesn’t matter whether they are gay.

    The military has also been moving in this direction to accommodate women without their privacy being violated by others who are attracted to them sexually (typically men), but the same type of infrastructure works in cases of homosexual attraction.

    This type of sexual privacy infrastructure is no more a comment on the mind of the gay man than it is on the mind of a heterosexual man. It is just a way of being able to mix people together in situations in which protecting privacy is a bigger issue than it is in the typical civilian desk job.

    As far as the likelihood of gay men “telling” after a unit being made “gay-friendly”, I agree that there may be some of the same phenomenon seen in the UK of people in certain units finding it better not to “tell”, at least initially. The job of the Secretary of Defense would be to choose the units where “telling” would be no big deal and start implementation there, and then expand from the easy cases to take on the more difficult cases.

  3. repsac3 says:

    Having individual stalls (& perhaps a small changing area) is a great idea for showers/bathrooms, but I have a feeling it’ll take more than that for folks in and out of the service to warm to the idea. Nevertheless, your ideas are most certainly a step in the right direction, and I’d be most interested in hearing other ideas (& objections, too) from those who’re serving or have served… (Civilian here, a consequence of both spiritual beliefs and medical infirmary.)

    I’m sorry I didn’t understand your exact meaning, earlier… (Now that you spelled it out, I’m surprised I didn’t think of it, myself.)

  4. slw2014 says:

    By enforcing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell the military is encouraging Service Members to violate the values it otherwise espouses (i.e. integrity, honor) since if one is gay one is forced to actively conceal one’s personal relationships for fear of reprisal.

    Anytime one contemplates the exclusion of a large group of people from something in this country, the threshold burden of proof to demonstrate necessity is ineluctably high.

    In my informed opinion, the necessity to maintain the status quo with respect to living environments does not meet that threshold.

  5. Senator Brown’s appointment to the Armed Services committee was approved on 2 March, and he is already listed at http://armed-services.senate.gov/members.htm

  6. […] Segal of Harvard Advocates for ROTC argues for an incremental approach at Securenation.org. Here’s Army Capt. Catherine Miller with an argument at Securenation for dispensing with […]

  7. Gen. Shalikashvili had an op-ed in the Washington Post today proposing much the same plan on DADT : http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/ar

  8. A Politico article (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0510/37728…) has the text of Sen. Lieberman's amendment at http://www.politico.com/static/PPM153_lieberman…. It envisions repeal of DADT without requiring the Pentagon to make all units gay-friendly, and specifies that the resulting Pentagon decisions not impact military capabilities. The key paragraph is:”That the implementation of necessary policies and regulations pursuant to the discretion provided by the amendments made by subsection is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.”The text refers to the DADT statute: http://www.law.georgetown.edu/solomon/backgroun… It looks like this implements the proposal outlined here and that of Gen. Shalikashvili (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/ar…). It depends on a certain trust that the Obama administration won't behave recklessly, but so did the original proposal. It does not require getting rid of DADT-type regulations in all units. It specifically leaves open the possibility that some of what was done by statute will now be done by regulation, leaving open the possibility of incremental change based on privacy infrastructure, as was done for women in the military, and is not yet complete.In terms of possible improvements to the text of the legislation, it might be good to have some wording that specifically refers to privacy and the fact that not all units need be treated the same.

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  10. A Washington Post article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/ar…) makes clear that the sexual privacy issue is part of the Pentagon review: “the Pentagon is in the midst of a comprehensive review to determine how to fully integrate openly gay men and lesbians. Among other issues, that review is examining whether gay and heterosexual troops should be required to share barracks. “The article also notes particular concern on this issue in the Marine Corps: “President Obama, set to name a new Marine Corps commandant in the coming weeks, is likely to face significant pressure to select someone who is not too outspoken in his opposition to repealing the law. All of the candidates being considered for the job have expressed reservations about repeal during wartime, according to senior U.S. officials familiar with the process. “

  11. Michael Segal says:

    Politico has an article at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0710/39539… detailing how the Pentagon survey is focusing on the sexual privacy issue: “The Pentagon working group on don’t ask don’t tell, [Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff] Morrell said, found that the force was concerned about privacy issues, in terms of bathing, housing and social situations. And the department wants to know whether more education, training or an adjustment of facilities would be required. “

  12. Michael Segal says:

    The 21 September 2010 US Senate vote against the military spending bill with the DADT provision is not the death of DADT reform. The rejection of the bill was largely for reasons tangential to DADT, and that outcome, together with many Senators wanting to see the Pentagon report due in December, will give an unusual legitimacy to action by a lame duck Congress. If the recommendations of the military are along the lines of this proposal, centrist Republicans are likely to vote yes, adding to the perceived legitimacy of a lame duck vote.

  13. […] prospect of reform of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law has raised hopes for the Reserve […]

  14. […] of others that 100% of units should be gay-friendly.  However, some on Capitol Hill prefer a centrist option in which the Pentagon would be given authority open up units based on their infrastructure for […]

  15. […] to choose between 0% or 100% of units being open to gays.  Indeed, both extreme positions are demonstrably silly since there is no good reason to bar gay lawyers from the military and there are clear problems […]

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