Commentary Magazine


When the Telling Starts

Most advocates want to make the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) about fairness and feelings, but for those in the military, that’s not what it’s about. Nor is it about military readiness. This is probably clearest to senior military officers, who have careers of unit leadership, administration, and policy implementation behind them. One can have every sympathy for gays and still oppose the repeal of DADT, because what it portends in daily practice is administering a forced accommodation to gay behavior.

Gays can already serve in the U.S. military; repealing DADT isn’t about allowing them to. It’s about endorsing their sexual orientation in military operations and culture. The course of hands-off neutrality is not an option in these realms; their unique character is to require affirmative policy. Civilians should start by understanding this. The quiescent tolerance they think of in relation to their own lives must translate, in the military, into endorsement and administration of an explicit position. These matters are hard for most people to discuss without emotion, and the tendency of both sides is to focus on what offends them. But it’s essential to understand that no form of offense felt by either side makes the administrative consequences of repealing DADT go away. They are inevitable.

Arguments against repealing DADT usually focus on the hazards of unit-level social interactions, and that’s a valid concern. But rules already exist for dealing with misconduct in the ranks; that aspect of adjustment won’t be the most difficult. The central question, rather, is whether having gays serve openly is a priority that justifies all the adjustments the military will have to make. Those adjustments will be necessary in two principal areas: military society, which includes family life and family-oriented services, and military administration. Intersecting with both of them is the prospect of lawsuits, guaranteed by the robust history of gay-activist litigation in government and the private sector.

Family life on military bases can’t help absorbing the impact of openly acknowledged gay romance, which will play out on sports fields, in base theaters, in recreation facilities, and at the exchanges and commissaries. To deny that this is an issue is merely to take a side. Policy questions will arise for everything from base-housing eligibility for gay couples to gay-themed marketing in the exchange department stores. Ignoring the concerns of military spouses and parents about this would defeat the very purpose of family services, but advocates would argue, and not without justification, that gay service members have an equal entitlement in this regard.

Administering the uniformed military, meanwhile, will have its own set of issues. One basic issue must come to a head: whether eligibility for promotion or command will be contingent on explicit support for homosexuality. The issue will be forced by lawsuit if by no other means. A 20-year veteran with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be comfortable, for example, endorsing “Gay Pride Month” or participating in scheduled military celebrations of it. He may be charged by a gay subordinate with creating a hostile work environment or ordered by a senior officer to get onboard with gay-pride celebrations. Perhaps his chain of command would back him up and force the issue to a higher level. The serious question remains: what does this have to do with warfighting readiness?

I wrote on this topic at some length last year, and refer you to my earlier piece for a summary of relevant incidents. The precedent has been set in foreign militaries and in U.S. civilian life for litigating a host of issues if DADT is repealed. Most gays in the military will want to serve quietly and with honor, as they do now, but repealing DADT will nevertheless open the door for legal activists to recruit plaintiffs. It will also create a set of time-consuming administrative and policy dilemmas that don’t exist under DADT.

We must recognize, moreover, that for the purpose of administering anti-discrimination policies, being gay is not like being black or female. People only have to know you’re gay — only have to be “polled” for their opinion — if you choose to make it clear. Repealing DADT isn’t about gays serving; it’s about gays “telling,” regardless of what others want to know. The respectful silence the others can maintain in civilian life, the tolerance by avoidance that lubricates social amity — these are precisely the options the military, with its top-down governance and institutional unity, withholds from its members.

Why must soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have this reckoning concerning each other? That’s the question each American voter needs to ask himself, as he considers what his purpose is in requiring, for service members and their families, a reckoning the rest of us can choose not to face.

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