With Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ruled unconstitutional, and many calling for it to finally die, I want to look at the law in context of its strategy. Ultimately, I want to convince you DADT was a necessary stepping stone for gay rights, and is a strategy to study rather than criticize.
First, lets look at the original context of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: from 1950-92, the law in effect was to essentially discharge anyone from the military who was homosexual. In 1992, AIDS was a rising epidemic, Magic Johnson had just retired after testing positive for HIV, and the idea of risking the spread of AIDS into a military in the middle of the first gulf war had to feel strange to all but the most liberal pacifists. Working in this climate, Bill Clinton changed this: with DADT, he prevented the military from pursuing suspicions of homosexuality, without them having to declare it socially acceptable. In other words, you could, for the first time, serve in the military without suffering a witch hunt. Although perhaps less than he promised in his campaign, this was progress.
That same year, Israel lifted their ban on homosexuality in their military. Why Israel? Its important to understand Isreaels general military strategy: everyone citizen is in the military. In other words, if you were an Israeli citizen and wanted to avoid the military, homosexuality was a viable option until 1993. They also didn’t have Magic Johnson. Its important to note this wasn’t a liberal egalitarian decision, but a pragmatic decision favoring their military.
The effect of Israel’s decision was to provide a sort of laboratory for the US to observe. One argument against integration I often heard was the the impact of intimate bonds on unit cohesion: essentially, you want to avoid homosexual relationships within a unit for the same reason you avoid heterosexual relationships – in battle the soldier will favor their mate over their unit. Good strategy in bed, bad strategy in a foxhole. But the studies showed the opposite: Kier (1998) found no impact on combat effectiveness, and Belkin and Levitt (2001) found no negative impact on performance.
Imagine, for a moment, the US was run by marketers: given a market demand for open acceptance of homosexuals in the military, our brilliant enterprising government would test market the idea, changing the policy in select locations and measuring the results. They would then evaluate the change, and decide whether to roll out the policy to the rest of the military.
Unfortunately, marketers don’t run the government (we just get them elected.) But within the political restraints of the moment, the government did the next best thing: they watched a close ally try the alternative policy, and then evaluated the results. Hampered a bit by the change in management, it took an extra 9-10 years to choose the better policy, but, hey, this is bureaucracy.
So now we’re witnessing the moment where this transitional policy dies: do we praise it or hate it? If we accept the limitations of government change, and the notion of progress, we have to conclude DADT was an excellent means to arrive at eventual integration, if not social acceptance, of homosexuals in the military.