- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that while he believed that homosexuality was “immoral,” he supported the Defense Department’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” has long been opposed by various gay and lesbian organizations, and — over the years — various bills have been introduced in Congress to repeal the policy. Addressed here is whether “don’t ask don’t tell” could be a sound social policy for us all — a useful analogy is Harry Truman’s 1948 Executive Order desegregating the military, leading the rest of our society by almost 20 years.

This isn’t a liberal vs. conservative issue, despite the spin some try to put on it: Sexual behaviors have no political preference. But they can adversely affect the school and workplace environment, and that’s what the DOD policy is intended to address — without judgments of “morality.” And, because of this, “don’t ask don’t tell” seems eminently civilized, especially compared the military’s earlier policy.

My experience is typical: Fresh out of law school in the late 1960s, I was sent to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver and assigned to a JAG office that primarily handled disciplinary matters for the base — a huge training center. Thousands of 17- to 18-year-old high school grads were trained in many technical specialties at Lowry, right after they completed their basic training in Texas.

As has always been the case in the military, some of the trainees were homosexual. When identified, they were processed for administrative separation from the Air Force and faced the real possibility of an “Undesirable” discharge, which would deprive them of all veteran’s benefits and essentially render them unemployable.

If there was a “typical” case, it was a middle-class male, who graduated from high school with good grades, had never been in any trouble, from a “traditional” two-parent family, who was enrolled in one of the more advanced technical training programs. In short, these were some of the best kids we had, and their training supervisors usually wanted to keep them on active duty.

The personal side of these cases was always tragic — no other word is accurate. The kid was always mortified, often suicidal, the family usually had no clue as to the kid’s sexuality and often the kid himself was not sure of it.

Being assigned to defend a kid in this situation was a real challenge: Some were so traumatized that they simply took the Undesirable Discharge and went home in shame; there was absolutely no persuading them that they should fight it. Even those who did fight it were often reluctant to tell their parents. And those who told their parents got varying responses — from being disowned to unconditional support. Some parents insisted on traveling to Denver and supporting their kid but some refused even to talk to him. It was always gut-wrenching for everyone involved.

What a sad waste of time, energy and, above all, badly needed skills and talent — this has always been my take on this phase of our military history. Fortunately, the policy changed — but it took more than 25 years.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” — the policy since 1993 — was and is a brilliant piece of military social-engineering, perhaps rivaling the significance of President Truman’s decision in 1948 to integrate the armed forces. At the time, however, some critics believed integration was immoral, and it wasn’t until 1964 — with passage of the Civil Rights Act — when it was mandated for all of American society. There has been an ongoing process of social and legal implementation of the policy ever since.

Shouldn’t “don’t ask, don’t tell” be put on a similar social policy track? The concept is simple: A person’s sexuality is his or her own business — so long as it doesn’t otherwise affect or interfere with the function or effectiveness of the organization they are a part of. However, within that organization, discrimination against a person for reason of their sexuality — so long as it remains their own business — is not acceptable, not tolerated and can be unlawful.

So, “don’t ask, don’t tell” isn’t a permissive environment — it’s intended to be part of a carefully constructed neutral environment, without judgments of morality.

It is the step beyond the idea of sexual neutrality — sexual advocacy — which, while protected generally by the First Amendment in public, doesn’t fit within the “don’t ask, don’t tell” construct at work or school. This is because of an eminently fair and reasonable assumption that someone else at the job or school may not be a willing recipient of this advocacy.

In this context, most forms of sexual advocacy seem inappropriate for schools and within other organizational dynamics, including the workplace, whether large or small, public or private — again, issues of morality aside.

And so — while it may not be perfect (few social policies are) — the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy offers us the lessons of a valuable social experiment for better understanding and increased tolerance. And, since 1993, DOD remains a place where homosexual men and women can continue to serve, provided they respect the carefully drawn line between their own sexual identity and the need to actively demonstrate for it. Sounds like it could be a good balance for all of us.

Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.

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