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As Congress Moves to End Gay Ban, Don't Let History Repeat Itself

Rep. Ellen Tauscher has just announced she'll introduce a bill to repeal the ban on open gays in the military, a momentous step that comes on the 15th anniversary of this highly unpopular policy.
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Rep. Ellen Tauscher has just announced she'll introduce a bill to repeal the ban on open gays in the military, a momentous step that comes on the 15th anniversary of this highly unpopular policy. While the bill has been introduced before, Democratic control of Congress and the White House means this time it has a real chance of becoming law.

But not before the Congress--and the nation--have a protracted debate about whether to lift the ban. The last time this all happened, at the beginning of the Clinton presidency, the policy that emerged was a disaster that pleased no one and ended up hurting, rather than helping, our troops. And the resulting political damage helped the GOP wrest control of Congress in 1994. If we want to minimize the chances of another catastrophic conversation, we must take a glance at that history.

The blueprint for the current policy was written by a panel of six admirals and generals who made up the Military Working Group, which was appointed by the Pentagon to recommend how to carry out Clinton's campaign promise to end the ban. Instead, they created "don't ask, don't tell," a policy of collective denial that requires deception in the name of "morale." In the course of research for my new book, "Unfriendly Fire," I spoke to members of, and advisors to, that panel, and obtained surprising information about just how flawed and dishonest the creation of the policy was.

The general who initially headed the MWG, Robert Alexander, said the group didn't fully understand what "sexual orientation" even meant. "We had to define in the first few sessions what we figured they were talking about." He said the MWG "didn't have any empirical data" so the conclusions they drew were purely "subjective." It was "very difficult to get an objective, rational review of this policy" he said. In this debate, "passion leads, and rationale follows."

One group staffer provided a wealth of research to the flag officers in charge, but said it was never even considered. He said the policy was created "behind closed doors" by people who were totally closed to lifting the ban, and that it relied on anti-gay stereotypes and resistance to outside forces.

Charles Moskos, the renowned military sociologist and close friend of Sen. Sam Nunn, advised the MWG, and was ultimately credited as the academic architect of "don't ask, don't tell." While he said publicly that the problem with openly gay service was that it would threaten "unit cohesion," he told me privately something quite different: "Fuck unit cohesion," he said, "I don't care about that." For Moskos, the last serious defender of "don't ask, don't tell," the ban was about the "moral right" of straight people not to be forced into intimate quarters with gays. Shortly before he died last summer, he admitted that he clung to his policy, in part, because he was afraid of disappointing his friends if he "turncoated."

Moskos also helped Sen. Nunn, the Congressional architect of the ban, orchestrate his notorious hearings in 1993. According to witnesses and activists I spoke with, Nunn's hearings were "rigged" from the start. Judith Stiehm, another sociologist who testified on the academic panel of the hearings, arrived to find that Moskos and Nunn "had already found an agreement" about the policy before the hearings began. Nunn even removed two witnesses when he learned they would oppose the gay ban, retired colonel Lucian Truscott III and former senator Barry Goldwater, and replaced them with a virulently homophobic general who was not an academic at all.

The MWG was also supposed to take recommendations from working groups convened by the individual services. Rear Admiral John Hutson, former Judge Advocate General of the Navy was a participant in the talks about whether to lift the ban in 1993. Hutson told me the assessment of gay service was "based on nothing. It wasn't empirical, it wasn't studied, it was completely visceral, intuitive." The policy, he said, was rooted in "our own prejudices and our own fears." Hutson now says "don't ask, don't tell" was a "moral passing of the buck."

Another advisor to the MWG was Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, a deeply homophobic evangelical who became vice president of the Family Research Council. While Maginnis admitted that he found homosexuality "morally repugnant," he cast the question of gay service in terms of "unit cohesion" for what he called "political reasons"--because he knew this approach would be more effective than moral tirades against equal treatment for gays. Maginnis, who believes gays are "unstable" hedonists who can't control themselves and are tainted by something called "gay bowel syndrome," was only the tip of the iceberg: in fact the "unit cohesion" rationale was an elaborate strategy created by a network of evangelical military officers and supporters who knowingly sold an anti-gay policy rooted in religion as though it were essential to protecting national security. And for too long, the nation drank the coolaid.

What all this shows is just how dangerous it is to allow the debate to be conducted by ill-informed or disingenuously motivated participants. Whoever takes the lead in framing the conversation--whether the Obama White House or the Congress--must insist on an honest, research-based approach.

Thankfully, the prospects for this seem good. Nearly every last person who created, supported, rationalized or otherwise propped up discrimination in the military has either reversed course or died (or both), or, in the case of the religious right, had their cover blown.

Colin Powell has called for the policy's "review," a polite way of saying it's time to move on. And this week, the Palm Center is reporting more dominoes are falling: In a letter which first appears in my book, the former senator goes further than he did last year in public remarks echoing Powell's call to "review" the policy: he now says the ban is actually "getting in the way" of military readiness. And not only has Gen. John Shalikashvili, Colin Powell's successor as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for repeal, but Adm. William Crowe, Powell's predecessor, told the Palm Center before he died that he now favors repeal too. More than 100 more retired admirals and generals have joined them, signing a document that says it's time to end the ban.

Sure, the effort to repeal the gay ban carries political risks. But as Rep. Ellen Tauscher has said, "it is always the right time to right a wrong."

Nathaniel Frank is author of "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America," and senior research fellow at the Palm Center, University of California, Santa Barbara.