Image: Illustration: Michael Daly

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” --a complex and costly policy
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[T]he Government Accountability Office estimates that DADT has cost more than $400 million since its implementation in 1993.


Cover image for Feb 23, 2011

Illustration by Michael Daly

Civics / One year into earning his bachelor’s degree at Hawaii Pacific University (HPU), John Foster longed for more structure and direction in his life. In 2003, he joined the US Navy and began a career as a linguist. Shortly after, Foster married Amy Carson. During their five-year marriage, the couple, who asked not to have their real names published, remained open about their gay and lesbian sexual identities.

Their story highlights the absurdities of living as a gay or lesbian service member under the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. It also illustrates the complexities involved in the repeal of the policy, which will soon go into effect. What will the repeal of DADT mean for Foster, Carson and other soldiers–gay or straight, married or single?

The official, anti-gay military policy began in the 1950s when Harry Truman established procedures for discharging gay service members. In 1982, the notoriously homophobic President Ronald Reagan issued a directive that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service,” and that those who engage in homosexual acts should be discharged. While President Bill Clinton promised to repeal this ban, DADT was eventually the result of a compromise, with gay and lesbian service members allowed in the military only if they agreed to “serve in silence.” Since 1993, more than 11,000 men and women have been discharged for violating the policy.

Enforcement inconsistencies

According to Foster and Carson, the effects of DADT were more insidious then outsiders might imagine. Rather than leading to a culture of overt and accepted tolerance of various sexual preferences, DADT stunted the careers of many gay and lesbian soldiers. In effect, it served as an internalized glass ceiling that many of them experienced as a barrier preventing them from ever rising through the various chains of command.

“Despite my success as a soldier, I could never really take my career in the military seriously, knowing that I wasn’t allowed to fully be myself,” says Foster. “Although it wasn’t the only reason why I chose not to re-enlist, it was definitely a reason.”

Because of DADT’s don’t ask provision, even if everyone knows a fellow service member is gay, no one is allowed to officially discuss it.

“It’s the absence of sex and sexuality that speaks so loudly,” Carson explains. “You are with these people every day, 40 hours a week, but you never go out with them or talk about the person you’re dating. What ends up happening is, that despite the rigid rules on paper, they are only selectively and occasionally enforced.”

“DADT always felt like a lingering, backdoor threat to me,” echoes Foster. “I always feared that people would use it against me–not because they had a problem with the fact that I was gay but because they had some other problem with the way I worked or with my personality.”

The repeal of DADT reassures gay and lesbian soldiers like Foster and Carson that they can finally take their lives and careers seriously, without fear of unnecessary and unfair retribution.

Equal Access

To an outsider, it would appear as if marriage provided Foster and Carson with a perfect cover up. As a married couple, they could ward off any suspicions from their fellow soldiers and protect themselves from witch hunts carried out by vindictive co-workers.

According to Foster, however, it wasn’t about that. “Everyone knew I was gay. I’ve spent the past seven years on a submarine, and never once was my sexuality a problem. In fact, being married probably kicked me out of the closet because everyone would ask, ‘You’re married? I thought you were…’”

Their marriage symbolizes the complicated framework regulating sexuality in the military and the forms of discrimination that gay and lesbian soldiers will continue to face, even after the repeal of DADT.

Like many straight couples, Foster and Carson married so they could share the benefits afforded to spouses in the military. As a spouse, Carson had direct access to her husband’s chain of command. She could easily contact him when he was deployed, thus serving as his lifeline to the real world.

“Amy would pay my bills, keep my car registered…it was just easier for us. It wasn’t just about acting straight because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he points out.

Adds Carson, “We formed an alternative family in order to have access to benefits that the military only provides if you are a family.”

Partially because of these benefits, many LGTB activists argue that DADT, much like gay marriage and civil unions, represents an important, albeit conservative, battleground for equality. The military serves as one of the primary providers of higher-education funding. Furthermore, the health and lifestyle benefits offered to military families are unmatched. In effect, DADT excluded non-heterosexual and non-traditional families from receiving these benefits, unless they chose to engage in what couples like Foster and Carson understand as a marriage of convenience.

“Straight people get married all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with sex or love,” asserts Carson. “Whether it be for property, a dowry or health insurance, these fake marriages are just like ours–the only difference is, we’re gay.”

It was the military’s exceptional educational opportunities and health benefits that initially attracted the couple to the military and ultimately led to their unconventional marriage, despite the fact that both of them had been out of the closet prior to enlisting. Still, the repeal of DADT does little to open military benefits to non-conventional or alternative families. The military’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), strictly defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.


Kathy Ferguson, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, doubts that the repeal of DADT will significantly alter the military’s homophobic culture.

“As long as the military proudly trains soldiers through the strategic use of sex and gender –“Don’t be a lady, a little girl, etc.,” and as long as contempt for women and homosexuals remains at the heart of soldiering –then gay service members will remain the object of contempt.”

The importance of sexuality in soldiering underpinned the conservative opposition to the repeal of DADT.

Speaking on the floor of the US Senate, Republican John McCain argued that we were doing “great damage” by repealing DADT, undermining “the battle effectiveness, which is so vital to the support [and] the survival of our young men and women in the military.”

Shortly after the repeal, a video of Capt. Owen Honors, commander of the USS Enterprise, making lewd and homophobic remarks, went viral, reminding all Americans that despite the repeal of DADT, many gay and lesbian service members still operate within a severely homophobic cultural climate.

“I supported the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because it might one day offer the chance for family benefits to people in non-conventional families,” explains Ferguson. “It might stop or lessen the witch hunts which forced many to live in fear of being outed. It might make the lives of gay and lesbian families in the military better, but the repeal of DADT, as it is currently being implemented, won’t change the military much.”

Ferguson might be right. When Truman ordered the military to racially integrate in 1948, he did so in part by barring the use of racial epithets in training. “

Justice for All?

“A change in policy does not lead to a change in culture,” echoes local LGBT activist Eri Oura. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, like gay marriage and civil union legislation, are policy changes. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell does not in any way imply that we can stop fighting for justice for all peoples.”

For Oura, this fight for justice requires that we not uncritically laud the repeal of DADT.

“I remember the day that Obama signed the repeal, there was an air of triumph across the LGTB community. People were really excited about it, my friends included, because it would open up new job and educational opportunities. What people were forgetting is that the military is a vehicle for war. Every day, people are being killed unnecessarily–soldiers and civilians alike. It does not help those of us who are struggling to liberate their communities from the forces of our economic draft.”

So, does celebrating the repeal of DADT bolster US militarism or make us complicit with the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Does it implicate LGTB activists in the effects of militarism here in Hawaii?

The fight against militarism and the fight for equality are important political battles in Hawaii. As Native Hawaiian activists struggle for cultural access at Makua Valley, environmentalist fight against the Stryker Brigade and LGTB advocates begin to assess the passage of a civil unions bill, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell raises some interesting questions for local residents and political leaders.

Kyle Kajihiro of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), is particularly wary of the effects of DADT’s repeal on demilitarization efforts in Hawaii. The AFSC focuses on the clean up, restoration and return of military-held lands in Hawaii as a way of moving toward a sustainable, peaceful society.

“We feel Hawaii should not be used as a place to expand US militarism and conduct wars against other peoples,” he explains. AFSC focuses on educating Hawaii’s youth on the realities of military service and promoting alternative ways of serving their community.

But even Kajihiro admits that the repeal of DADT creates a conundrum for progressive activists.

“Although we advocate for demilitarization and alternatives to the military, we are strong supporters of Hawaii’s LGTB youth. The AFSC feels that they should be treated fairly and equally when serving in the military.”

DOD repeal studies

In November 2010, the Department of Defense (DOD) commissioned a report on the issues associated with the Repeal of DADT.

According to the report, more than 70 percent felt that the repeal of DADT would have a positive, a mixed or no effect. More than 92 percent of the soldiers who had previously worked with gay or lesbian service members felt that the ability of straight and gay soldiers to work together was “good” or “very good.”

But many worry that the implementation of the repeal will not appropriately address issues of sexual harassment, cohabitation and military-unit cohesion. While the report recommends that the implementation involve education and include a clear message from upper command levels on defining the role of sexuality in the military, thus far it seems unclear how soldiers will be able to address issues of discrimination if sexual orientation is not, as the report recommends, placed alongside race, color, religion, sex and national origin as classes eligible for diversity programs and complaint resolution processes.

Further, same-sex couples remain legally prohibited from receiving many of the benefits of service.

“Until we address the unfair provisions of DOMA, which restrict access of family benefits to straight couples, we will continue to see gay and lesbian soldiers suffer in the military,” asserts Carson. “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if DADT was repealed prior to me joining the military. Would I have gotten married to John? Would I have married a woman? I don’t know.”

Fiscally conservative observers ask if the effort has been successful considering that the Government Accountability Office estimates that DADT has cost more than $400 million since its implementation in 1993. The Pentagon spent another $7.7 million on administrative costs. The bulk of these costs has gone to training replacements for the more than 11,000 soldiers who have been discharged.

The report said the military had been unable to determine the cost of DADT before 2004, because not all the services could provide information on training expenses. The majority of the approximately 13,500 service members expelled since the policy took effect in 1993 weren’t included in the study.

The report also suggested that the cost on military readiness of the policy had been high. It said nearly 80 percent of soldiers expelled from the Army under DADT held jobs that were critical to military operations. In the Navy, for example, 760 sailors who were expelled spoke languages considered critical to US military operations, including Arabic, Serbian and Haitian Creole, the report said.

Advocates push for certification

Advocates of repealing DADT cheered the report, saying it validated their position that barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military had been a huge financial burden and threatened the nation’s military readiness. They urged the Pentagon to move quickly to certify that it was ready to lift the ban.

In the meantime, Foster and Carson are no longer enlisted in the military. Their reasons for leaving are complicated, and neither is jumping at the opportunity to re-enlist now that the DADT has been repealed. But both are cautiously optimistic that the DADT will mark a major change for both soldiers and civilians alike.

For the Army, no matter how you look at it, the repeal of DADT is a step in the right direction, according to Kajihiro.

“People feel that if they applaud the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, they are somehow endorsing the further militarization of Hawaii,” Carson says. “It’s not so. Anytime the government has less control over our bodies is a reason to celebrate. That is what the repeal of DADT means — for gay and straight people alike.”

Hurry Up and Wait

On Dec. 22, 2010, President Barack Obama signed a bill repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It will not be certified until military officials determine the process of the repeal. The new law requires that the president, the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the new regulations are consistent with standards of military readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention. Training soldiers for a DADT post, however, has already begun and will be completed by June, according to the Navy.