Joseph Rocha spent years as an enlisted soldier working to move his way up. He wanted to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy to be an officer in the United States Marine Corps. He volunteered for difficult assignments and earned certifications in martial arts, combat, and swimming -- all the while his fellow soldiers harassed him about his sexual orientation. They pressured him to sleep with prostitutes and, when he would not, asked him if he was a "faggot." His commanding officer openly referred to him as gay and looked the other way as Rocha was made to simulate oral sex on men and beaten on his 19th birthday. After years of relentless taunting, he finally cracked, told his superiors he was gay, and was quickly discharged.
Rocha is just one of the 13,500 armed forces personnel who have been let go under "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) since the law was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. His was one of the many unsettling stories that a federal judge in California highlighted in ruling the policy unconstitutional last week. But the decision may not have to wind its way through the appellate courts before gay service members get their due. Next week, the Senate plans to take up the annual Defense Authorization Bill, which includes an amendment to repeal DADT. The House has already approved a similar bill, and President Barack Obama -- who since taking office has weathered substantial criticism from the gay-rights community for stalling on repeal -- has promised to sign it.
Alexander Nicholson of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay-rights group that has long opposed DADT, has said he is "fairly confident" the measure to repeal it has the requisite 60 votes to pass. If it does, it will bring a belated end to nearly 20 years of systematic discrimination in one of our most vaunted institutions. But as the legacy of a more intolerant era, "don't ask, don't tell" also serves as a historical lesson in how social institutions enshrine -- and more important, perpetuate -- bigotry.
"When your chain of command, your institution is making a clear statement that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are essentially second-class, it filters down to create an environment in which people feel empowered to have negative attitudes toward gay, lesbian, and bisexual people -- and act in ways that reflect them," says Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert, a professor of sociology at Hamline University who studies the social dynamics in the military. She is also a former member of the U.S. Army and Army Reserve.
DADT supporters like John McCain pledge to "support the men and women of the military" and "fight what is clearly a political agenda" by filibustering the repeal, but the ban on openly gay service members has never been about the troops. From the start, it was a top-down decision imposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high-ranking military officials.
At the direction of President Clinton, in 1993 then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin commissioned the RAND Corporation to study the possible effects of allowing openly gay military members. RAND brought together 75 social scientists who produced an exhaustive 500-page study. They concluded: Though lifting the outright ban on gay service members -- which was then the policy but not the law -- would require a period of adjustment to allow training officers on the new policy, openly gay military service posed no threat to "unit cohesion," morale, or "military readiness." After spending $1.3 million for the study, the Pentagon did everything possible to keep it from going public; according to The New York Times, it didn't even bother consulting the report.
Instead, the Department of Defense relied on a flimsy 15-page "review" by five senior generals and admirals that determined -- without bothering to cite any evidence -- that "all homosexuality is incompatible with military service" and that allowing gays in the military would lead to the spread of diseases like AIDS. The Joint Chiefs used this to push back on President Clinton, who ultimately gave in and settled for "don't ask, don't tell," which allowed gay men and women to serve as long as no one knew about their sexual orientation.
At the time, DADT was touted as a "compromise" between an all-out ban and an open-door policy -- not the desired outcome but at least a step forward. But in reality, it made things worse. The number of soldiers given the boot on account of their sexual orientation surged[PDF] after the policy was implemented. Previously, each branch had its own policy for dealing with gays in the ranks, allowing at least some latitude in deciding whether to dismiss a gay service member. Now military officers were required by federal law to root out gays. And as Slate's's Brian Palmer has reported, "don't ask, don't tell" was perhaps a misnomer; there was a steep penalty for telling but a strong incentive for asking. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the policy led to gay witch hunts.
Harassment -- both verbal and physical -- of gay soldiers actually increased, and it's not difficult to understand why. DADT was nothing if not an effort to enforce -- and penalize deviations from -- masculine norms. And what better way to show you're a real man than by picking on the little guy?
"It has fostered an environment where sexuality is at the center, and it makes people have to do everything they can to make sure they're perceived as heterosexual," Embser-Herbert says. "Regardless of sexual orientation, if a guy isn't as macho as someone else, you now have a government-mandated mechanism for making his life miserable."
DADT turned sexuality into a weapon, and it isn't just gay soldiers who have suffered. For fear of being labeled as lesbians -- a real threat given that DADT-related discharges disproportionally involve women -- many women have chosen not to report sexual harassment from male colleagues.
In 2000, the Pentagon finally confronted the epidemic of harassment in the armed forces after fellow soldiers brutally beat Barry Winchell, an infantry soldier in the Army, to death with a baseball bat as he slept in his barracks. In the wake of the incident, the Department of Defense conducted a study that found 80 percent of service members had heard their colleagues use gay slurs or tell gay jokes and 85 percent reported the jokes were tolerated by other service members or their superiors. In addition, 37 percent said they had witnessed their colleagues harass a particular service member for his or her perceived sexual orientation.
The policy has also helped anti-gay attitudes persist in the military, even as public sentiment toward gays has warmed. It's true that the military has long been more wary of gays than broader society. In 1993, more than three-fourths of military members opposed allowing gays in the military, compared with around 60 percent of the public. Some of the disparity between civilian and military attitudes is no doubt because service members are more likely to be Republican and religious, but the chasm between public and military opinion has only widened since DADT took effect. Today, public support for the ban has plummeted to around 20 percent while military members still oppose it by a nearly two-to-three margin.
Just as troubling as the prejudice DADT promotes is the fact that it withholds the antidote. Public attitudes toward gay rights have softened for many reasons, but chief among them is that in 1993, most Americans did not personally know a gay person, which studies show is the single best predictor of homophobic attitudes. Today, more than 75 percent of Americans have an openly gay co-worker, family member, or friend. In contrast, members of the military have been denied the opportunity to challenge their prejudices and stereotypes about gay people by having openly gay colleagues and superiors whom they respect.
"There is just no education," says Christopher Ness, deputy policy director for the Palm Center, a research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, dedicated to studying sexual minorities in the military. "It's an affirmative stigma that prevents an actual dialogue and keeps the services -- not just gay troops -- in the closet."
DADT supporters, of course, would like to keep it that way. Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, unwittingly reveals the real danger of letting gays serve openly: In a recent op-ed defending DADT, he warned that repealing the policy would "indoctrinate [military members] into the myths of the homosexual movement: that people are born 'gay' and cannot change and that homosexual conduct does no harm to the individual or to society." As long as the prejudices of people like Perkins' are what guide our military personnel policy, DADT will continue to make it a place where only people like him feel comfortable serving.