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Open for Service

Last month, retired Air Force General Merrill McPeak, one of Barack Obama’s highest-ranking military supporters during the campaign, reiterated his opposition to openly gay service. When McPeak participated in the debates over lifting the ban in 1993, he was Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Like most military members who shared his position then, McPeak couched his sentiments in terms of military effectiveness, saying that homosexuality was “incompatible with military service” and would “work against unit cohesion.”

But behind the scenes, military leaders were meeting with members of the religious right and settling on a communications strategy to claim that unit cohesion would be undermined by letting gays serve, while minimizing the real reasons for the resistance, which were moral and cultural: Social conservatives opposed homosexuality and felt that allowing equal treatment in the military would send a dangerous message of tolerance for something they frowned upon. While conducting research for my forthcoming book on gays in the military, for instance, I learned that leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals were persuaded by their contacts in the military that highlighting the “practical concerns” of gay service instead of the moral ones would make a more effective case against lifting the ban. The sociologist, Charles Moskos, credited with coming up with the idea for “don’t ask, don’t tell,” told me in an interview in 2000, “Fuck unit cohesion--I don’t care about that.” For him, too, the gay ban was a moral issue, even though he said in public at the time of the debate that it was about military effectiveness.

Fifteen years later, military men like McPeak are still using the unit cohesion line against gay service, though less persuasively. In his recent comments, McPeak openly admitted that his position is based on his own personal intolerance and that of other senior military leaders. “I couldn’t see how I could become an advocate for open homosexuality in Air Force combat units,” McPeak said last month. In order to lift the ban on open gays, “the service leadership will have to go to the gay and lesbian annual ball and lead the first dance,” something he and other brass have no intention of doing. Last year, General Peter Pace, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the gay ban on grounds that homosexuality was “immoral.”

Though Obama has said he wants to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he has also stated that he won’t be “out front” on the issue and will work cautiously with the military leadership to make the change. The Washington Times reported on Friday that he might not seek a repeal until 2010. Still, the admissions of McPeak and Pace show why he may have a far easier time lifting the ban today than Bill Clinton did at the beginning of his presidency: When a united front of generals insists that letting open gays serve in the military would wreck the force, it’s a tough line to combat; but when the sheer weight of research on this issue forces even military brass to cast their resistance in terms of personal morality, the front has begun to crumble.

The hurdles in 1993 were enormous. When a federal judge ordered a discharged gay sailor reinstated just days after Clinton won the election, reporters fixated on the issue, forcing the president-elect to deal with his campaign promise on gay service from day one. Clinton, for his part, bungled the politics. Members of Congress were threatening from the outset to write the gay ban into legislation. Clinton underestimated both the extent and nature of opposition to gay service, and failed to assign experienced aides to manage the issue during the transition. Along with gay groups, the new president missed another story--a marriage of the religious right and the military leadership. Couple that with military opinion that was overwhelmingly against lifting the ban and public opinion that was about evenly split, and the repeal’s chances were sunk.

Today, it’s a far different world. Conservative and military resistance to openly gay service is swiftly falling. Last week, over a hundred retired generals and admirals released a statement calling for an end to the gay ban. Earlier this year, a report by a team of bipartisan retired flag officers (released by the Palm Center, where I work) became the most extensive study of gay service since 1993. Its conclusion: Congress should repeal the gay ban. Last year, General John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came out against the ban. He was quickly followed by former GOP lawmakers and pro-ban supporters Alan Simpson and Bob Barr. Even Sam Nunn, who led the opposition to gay service, has changed his tune. This year he called for a review of the policy, saying that “times change,” and it is now “appropriate to take another look.”

Polls corroborate the sea change in opinion. Roughly four fifths of Americans oppose “don’t ask, don’t tell,” including a majority of Republicans, conservatives, and church-goers. Polls show that about half of junior enlisted personnel now support lifting the ban, and that three quarters of enlisted personnel are “personally comfortable” with gays and lesbians. Only five percent are “very uncomfortable.” This all demonstrates a major gulf between the assumptions of the old guard (that homosexuality is incompatible with military service) and the reality on the ground (that whatever homophobia still exists does not break unit cohesion).

Given this changed landscape, the right-wing attempts to justify their opposition to gay service have become increasingly strained. Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which is dedicated to opposing women and gays in combat, became a laughing stock after she claimed in front of Congress, on July 23, that “HIV positivity” and “passive/aggressive actions” were common in the homosexual community. Charging that gay service would “sexualize the atmosphere” of the military, her testimony was labeled by normally-staid lawmakers as “dumb,” “bonkers,” “inappropriate,” and an “insult” to the army. Such is the desperation among the anti-gay front that a leaked e-mail by the executive director of the Eagle Forum last month revealed an effort to dig up gay “horror stories” to help convince military leaders that lifting the ban would “threaten our national security” and the “personal safety” of America’s troops. The e-mail acknowledged that such horror stories would be “very difficult to find.”

President-elect Obama should recognize all these changes when he decides to tackle “don’t ask, don’t tell.” His easiest path might be to park the issue in a presidential commission that can give cover to whatever action he eventually takes. But that would be badly redundant. An enormous amount of data has accumulated since 1993 showing that openly gay service does not impair the military, and that the ban itself wastes talent, strains our forces, and undermines trust among troops who are not allowed to be honest with one another. The research includes studies conducted and commissioned by the government and the Pentagon. Twenty-four nations now allow gays to serve openly, and thorough examinations of their experiences corroborate that banning open gays is both unnecessary and damaging.

Obama's best bet would be to work quietly with Congress to build the support he needs as he simultaneously considers what regulatory options he may have to suspend the ban. There is currently a bill for repeal with 149 co-sponsors. His challenge is to win over the remaining votes without falling into some of the same traps Clinton did. How should he do it? First, he should announce several meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but he must not confuse consultation with asking permission. He should make clear from the outset that the time has come to lift the ban, and that he wants their input on how, not whether, to do so. The true test of leadership is whether Obama can stand up to military resistance with confidence rooted in the wealth of research showing that gay service does not impair the military. Any threat of resignation by senior brass must be ignored. Also, when speaking both to the public and to the military leadership, he should cast the change in terms of national and economic security: We need to retain qualified Americans who are badly needed, reduce wasteful government spending on ineffective programs (training troops to replace lost talent due to “don’t ask, don’t tell” has already cost an estimated half a billion dollars), ensure job security for the troops, and practice at home the kind of democracy we are fighting for abroad.

The biggest mistake in war is to fight the last battle instead of the next. While the lessons of Clinton’s failure should give pause to those who seek to end the ban, so much has changed over the last 15 years that there’s no reason that careful, committed leadership can’t do it right this time around.

Dr. Nathaniel Frank is author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America (St. Martin's Press). He is Senior Research Fellow at the Palm Center at University of California, Santa Barbara, and teaches on the adjunct faculty at New York University. His scholarship and writing on gays in the military and other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The New Republic, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Slate, Huffington Post and others, and he has been interviewed on numerous television and radio programs including "The Daily Show" and "The Rachel Maddow Show." He lives in Brooklyn, NY.