By Lindy McCollum-Brounley
Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a light-hearted name for a heavy-handed federal law prohibiting gay people from serving in the military. Since the law was enacted in 1993, more than 13,500 service men and women have been discharged from the armed services for being gay.
“ ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is not exactly what most people think it is,” said Diane Mazur, a University of Florida professor of law and Gerald A. Sohn Research Scholar. “It has a cute name that sounds innocuous and fair. The problem is that the nickname has almost no relation to the actual law.”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” dictates that people will be summarily discharged from military service if it becomes known that they are gay. That’s bad news for the 65,000 gay men and women the Urban Institute estimates to be in active-duty military service, the National Guard, or the Reserves. Losing valuable servicemen and women also is bad news for an all-volunteer military stretched to its limits after 10 years of fighting on two fronts.
Many Americans — 75 percent, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll — believe the policy should be scrapped. Even the military’s top brass have had a change of heart, with Colin Powell, who in the past had been the policy’s most ardent defender, now calling for its end and both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen testifying before Congress in February that the policy should be repealed.
During that Congressional hearing, two legal memos regarding suspension of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy were central in the exchange between members of Congress and Pentagon officials. The first memo outlined the president’s “stop loss” authority to suspend “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The second outlined several legal options available to the secretary of defense to moderate the impact of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on military separations until Congress decides whether or not to repeal the law. Mazur authored the memos in her role as the legal co-director of the Palm Center, a research subdivision of the University of California at Santa Barbara and the leading research organization on “don’t ask, don’t tell” issues. Her areas of legal research, which include civil military relations under the Constitution, civilian control of the military, military law, and military service issues, are informed by her own service as a captain in the U.S. Air Force.
So far, the president has not exerted his authority to suspend “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but Gates announced on March 26 that the Pentagon would implement variations of several of the options listed in Mazur’s memos as means to ameliorate military discharges under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Under the new regulations, ‘credible’ reports must be direct observations of a violation, not speculation based on hearsay or on what ‘looks gay.’ Also, the military will no longer rely on reports from people considered ‘unreliable,’ including those who have suspect motives or who are opposed to the service of gay people generally.
“What it means in practical terms is that more openly gay people will be serving in the military,” Mazur said. “When the military requires that someone as senior as a general or an admiral approve any action under the policy, it means the military believes that enforcement is interfering with military effectiveness.” “These are big steps toward eventual repeal.”