The following is from Kmareka’s West Coast correspondent, Elaine Hirsch.
Elaine Hirsch is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education and history to medicine and videogames. This makes it difficult to choose just one life path, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead. Currently, she writes for onlinephd.org.
The Silent Passing of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Ten days after the solemn ceremony commemorating the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a momentous piece of legislation was enacted in the United States. Any student of history should remember September 20th, 2011 as the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and as the beginning of a new era for gay rights in America, but instead the moment was eclipsed in the national news.
The history of DADT and its eventual repeal is an important chapter for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights community. In the all-male American military service of yore, sodomy was considered a grave violation which merited discharge, but homosexual preferences or tendencies were not specifically addressed until around World War II. Military psychiatrists deemed homosexuality a deviant behavior, and thus not suitable among servicemen. This rather extreme and disparaging view was soon eschewed and replaced by a more tacit “no sex between servicemen” regulation, although gay members of the military continued to be unfairly discharged. The issue of homosexuality in the military was mostly an afterthought during the Vietnam War era, when simply maintaining troop levels was the main concern.
The notorious cases against Fannie Mae Clackum and Leonard Matlovich of the United States Air Force led to the adoption of a policy by the Department of Defense which essentially outlawed homosexuality in the military. By the 1990s, the LGBT rights community raised awareness of this unfair policy and public opinion began to sway against the narrow-minded stance it represented.
It took the brutal murder of a gay sailor serving in Japan to bring the issue to a level of national interest. Radioman Petty Officer Third Class Allen R. Schindler, Jr. was only 22 years old when he was stomped to death by a shipmate because of his sexual orientation in 1992. The young sailor’s murder prompted presidential candidate Bill Clinton to announce his intention to repeal anti-gay military policy, but Congress quickly moved to make it federal law instead. This was a shrewd political move that forced the Clinton White House to attempt a repeal. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy is the compromise reached in lieu of overturning the gay ban in the military.
Originally the policy was called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue.” This was the phrase chosen by sociologist Charles Moskos, who was instrumental in drafting a policy that didn’t explicitly permit homosexuals to serve in the military, but neither allowed them to be discharged as long as they “served in silence.” The original name of the policy was shortened almost as soon as the policy was adopted, but it was also known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Harass.”
As an official policy, DADT was challenged numerous times. The inadequacy of the policy was depicted in at least two films: Serving in Silence (1997) and Soldier’s Girl (2003). Serving in Silence is based on the life of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, an Army nurse who served in the Washington National Guard. Colonel Cammermeyer was honorably discharged in 1992 against her will when she came out as a lesbian. She appealed the discharge in federal district court and was reinstated and allowed to retire.
Soldier’s Girl portrays the tragic murder of Private First Class Barry Winchell, an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division who was brutally murdered by a fellow soldier who believed PFC Winchell was involved in a relationship with transgendered showgirl Calpernia Addams. PFC Winchell’s murder infuriated President Clinton, who immediately ordered a review of the DADT policy. Lieutenant General Timothy Maude, a top Army officer who sympathized with the LGBT military community, personally met with PFC Winchell’s grieving parents.
The White House under President George W. Bush didn’t do much to advance the repeal of DADT, but presidential candidate Barack Obama made it a campaign promise. In 2010, efforts to repeal DADT and grant homosexuals the right to serve in the US military began in earnest. The efforts were silent but swift, and ultimately successful. The lack of news media attention shouldn’t detract from the sheer significance of the change represented by the repeal. The end of DADT marks a major achievement in the progress of civil rights in America. It may’ve passed in relative silence, but it should be remembered with fanfare.