Spotlight on history

The history of the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) law that banned lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military services

By Paul A. Gade, PhD

Welcome to the Spotlight on History! This column will showcase stories on the history of military psychology. Accounts presented in the column will be inclusive of all areas of military psychology. If you would like share a historical account in this column, please contact Paul Gade, PhD.

Repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell: A brief history

Paul A. Gade, PhD
George Washington University

When Armando asked me to write this column, he asked me to make the inaugural article a review of the history of the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) law that banned lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military services. Having been involved the Army’s research related to the first presidential attempt to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in 1993-94 and in the Division’s early efforts to come together with Division 44 in a united effort to support lifting the ban, I decided to address this history by first comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between then and now in the three broad areas that I believe made DADT and its eventual repeal possible. These areas are American public opinion, the political environment, and attitudes in the American military services. I will then briefly discuss the similarities and differences in the role that military psychological research and military psychologists played in informing the debates and influencing the decisions about lifting the ban during both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

American attitudes about gay and lesbian behavior and gay and lesbian military service then and now

One must always consider the potential impact of cultural context when examining historical social change. Life course theory refers to this as grounding things in historical time and place. This is why I chose to begin with a look at differences in the attitudes of Americans about gays and lesbians around 1993 versus their attitudes in 2010 when DADT was repealed. Members of the gay and lesbian community often told me that President Truman’s executive order desegregating the U.S. military services in 1948 should serve as a model and rationale for lifting the ban against gay and lesbian service in the military. As the gay and lesbian community saw it, this was a way to liberalize American public opinion about gays and lesbians not only in the military services but also in American society in general. In our 1994 analysis of the experience of lifting bans in foreign militaries in Out in Force, David Segal, Ed Johnson, and I showed that in each case where other nations had removed bans on gays and lesbians serving in their country’s military, they did so because their culture had become liberalized toward gays and lesbians first and usually new national laws had outlawed such discrimination. In no case was a country’s repeal of their ban on gays in the military followed by a liberalization of society toward gays and lesbians. It is interesting to observe that President Clinton failed to remove the U.S. ban on gays in the military in 1993-94 when American society had not yet accepted the idea of gays serving in the U.S. military. As an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed, only 40% of the people favored gays and lesbians serving while 52% opposed the idea. This changed in about 10 years as a 2004 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 63% of the American people now favored gays and lesbians serving while only 32% now opposed such service. Although we don’t have data from the same years about Americans’ attitudes about the acceptability of gay and lesbian relations, the chart below shows that the majority of Americans found gay and lesbian relations unacceptable until around 2010-2011, right at the time that President Obama’s administration began their successful push to remove the DADT law in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to serve “openly.” Gallup poll results of one sort or another have shown a slow but steady liberalization of American society toward Gays and Lesbians since the 1970s. The historical time and place was right for accepting Gays and Lesbians into the U.S. military services and the table was set for the repeal of the DADT law in 2010-2011. (See Figure 1 below.)


Political positions then and now

In 1993, President Bill Clinton and Secretary of Defense Les Aspin were committed to lifting the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. However, President Clinton encountered strong Congressional opposition to lifting the ban, especially from Senator Sam Nunn (D), the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This opposition forced President Clinton into the DADT compromise that was recently repealed. Dr. Charles “Charlie” Moskos, a well-known, politically active military sociologist from Northwestern University and a member of Division 19, told me that he had suggested the DADT compromise to President Clinton and to Senator Nunn. At the very least, Charlie is credited with coining the DADT name--which was originally titled “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” and later as “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass.” In 2010, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and later, Leon Panetta, were also committed to repealing the DADT law. Contrary to the Congressional opposition to lifting the ban under President Clinton, Congress embraced repealing the DADT law when given the opportunity to do so. It is also interesting to note that Senator Nunn reversed his opposition to gay and lesbian service in 2010, stating he did so because “Society has changed and the military has changed.”

Attitudes in the U.S. military services then and now

Although President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense was in favor of lifting the ban, in addition to the Congressional opposition, military leaders from all the services, most notably the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) General Colin Powell and later General John Shalikashvili, were very much opposed to it. It is interesting to note that both Generals Powell and Shalikashvili reversed their opposition to gay and lesbian military service much later. citing that both the American and military cultures had changed sufficiently to allow this to happen without adversely affecting military retention or performance. Contrast this with the situation during President Obama’s administration. The Chairman of the JCS, Admiral Mullen, was fully in favor of repealing DADT and allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly within accepted military decorum. Although there was some grumbling from the brass of the other military services, with the exception of the Marine Corps, most did not oppose repealing DADT with anything like the intensity and solidarity of those who opposed lifting the ban on gay and lesbian service in 1993-1994. Their protests had significantly influenced Congress in its decision not to lift the ban but rather to codify the DADT policy into U.S. law.

Military psychology’s contribution to the debate

From the Society for Military Psychology’s perspective, the foray of military psychologists into the debate about gays and lesbians in the military began more or less when Divisions 44 and 19 co-sponsored a symposium at the APA annual convention in 1989, chaired by Dick Bloom of Division 19, entitled “Should Lesbians and Gays Be Given Security Clearances by the U.S. Government?” This turned into a debate between Greg Herek (pro), a well-known social psychologist and gay activist, and Theodore Blau (con), a former APA president. The APA’s Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns (CLGC) raised the issue that DoD’s ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military was a violation of APA’s nondiscrimination policy and that DoD agencies should be banned from using the APA convention and publications to advertise job openings and internships. A mail-out survey in 1991, conducted under then society president Jarrod Jobe, showed that the majority of our membership said they supported lifting the ban on gay and lesbian service, but opposed the idea of an advertising ban. Despite our society’s objections and those of others in APA, the CLGC and Division 44, now known as the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues, successfully brought the issue to a vote in the APA Council of Representatives. The Council voted overwhelmingly for the ban and it went into effect in January 1993. With the help of the CLGC and APA representative, Clinton Anderson, our society met with representatives from Division 44 in an attempt to come to some joint effort that would allow APA to remove its advertising ban. As part of this process, we conducted a joint workshop on gays and lesbians in the military with Division 44. Although few of either society attended the workshop, it did lead to the frequently cited jointly edited and authored book "Out in Force" that was published by the University of Chicago Press.

For a variety of reasons the issue lay dormant for several years until in 2001, Janice Laurence, the president of Division 19, sent a very important and well-crafted letter to the president of APA, Norine Johnson, urging APA to re-evaluate the ad ban on military services. The letter pointed out the main flaw of the ad ban, which was that it was no longer a DoD policy, but rather a U.S. law that only Congress and the President could change. For this reason, pressuring the military services had been and would continue to be ineffective in repealing the ban on gays and lesbians in the military services. The letter further pointed out that the ad ban was in conflict with several APA goals and might even be a violation of Federal law. The letter closed by reaffirming Division 19’s continued support for APA efforts to abolish the Federal law barring gays and lesbians, urging APA to act promptly, and offering Division 19 help not only in taking actions to eliminate the ad ban but also to seek other ways to gain acceptance for gays and lesbians in the military services. This letter got everyone’s attention. Later, Hank Taylor, Division 19 president, submitted a draft agenda item to the APA Council of Representatives to suspend the Council rules and lift the advertising ban. As a result, APA president Bob Sternberg created the APA Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Military Service in 2003. Members of Divisions 44 and 19 jointly populated the task force, with Hank Taylor as the chair of the Division 19 contingent. In 2004, the task force issued its recommendations for revamping the APA policy on sexual orientation and military service to include ending the ban on DoD advertising in APA publications and conventions. The APA Council of Representatives quickly passed the task force’s recommendations as a resolution. Out of this very successful joint effort by Divisions 44 and 19 grew a second task force, the Joint Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Military Service, to develop a plan for implementing the recommendations in APA’s Policy Statement on Sexual Orientation and Military Service. Once again, Hank Taylor was the Division 19 chairperson for this task force, which issued its final report in 2008.

Military psychology’s contribution to the repeal of DADT

During the 1992-1994 time period military psychologists, particularly those at the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) and the Rand Corporation, were actively conducting research to inform the debate about President Clinton’s proposed lifting of the ban on gay and lesbian military service. In 1993 at the request of DoD, the scientists at the Rand Corporation conducted a thorough review of the rationale for banning gays and lesbians from military service in the U.S. Unpopular with most of DoD at the time, the “Rand Report” found, after reviewing relevant psychological, sociological, and medical research—to include the experience of foreign military services who had lifted their bans—that there were no compelling reasons why gays and lesbians could not serve in the U.S. military services. At ARI, military psychologists were conducting an in-depth survey of scientists from a variety of foreign military services to see how their respective countries were dealing with or had dealt with the issue of gays and lesbians in their military services. In late 1992, the U.S. Air Force conducted a survey of its service members’ attitudes about lifting the ban. The results were highly negative and predicted dire consequences in terms of performance, retention, and disruption if the ban were lifted. As promised, when the Clinton administration took office in 1993, it immediately moved to lift the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military. In response, the Army and the Marine Corps geared up to do surveys of their respective service members as the Air Force had— but the new Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, directed all of the military services not to conduct any surveys of service members about lifting the ban, prohibited the Air Force from releasing its survey results, and in March, contracted with Rand to do a comprehensive review of the potential effects of lifting the ban. Therefore the only officially sanctioned research conducted by any of the U.S. military services was that conducted by ARI to assess the experience of foreign militaries. In early 1993, the General Accounting Office (GAO) also was commissioned by Senator John Warner (R-VA) to study the policies, practices, and experiences of foreign militaries in dealing with gays and lesbians in military service. Like Rand, the GAO and the ARI expanded assessment of the experience of foreign militaries showed that if the U.S. were to lift the ban, it would likely do so with few, if any, negative consequences for military performance, recruiting, retention, or conduct. Unfortunately, any direct impact the Rand, GAO, and ARI research efforts might have had on the resulting decision about lifting the ban was negated by a political compromise: DADT. They all more than likely had an indirect impact on those who crafted and accepted the DADT policy in that they were all well aware of this research. Although the DADT policy said it was only okay for gays and lesbians to serve in the military provided they neither admitted they were gay nor engaged in any homosexual behavior, it did for the first time officially acknowledge that gays and lesbians could and did serve in the U.S. military. In brief, though military psychologists provided much informative research results to decision makers, they had little direct impact on what got decided.

This was not the case with the eventual repeal of DADT in 2011. Military psychologists were very influential in what was accomplished and how it was implemented. President Obama’s report of the results of the Comprehensive Review to Congress on December 1, 2010 was not only influenced by military psychologists who were members of the Comprehensive Review Working Group (CRWG) but was written in large part by two members of our society. Contrary to what had occurred in 1993 when the Secretary of Defense banned all service member surveys, the DoD conducted a massive survey of 400,000 service members and 150,000 spouses to find out what their concerns and behaviors would be if DADT were repealed. The results informed DoD’s assessment of whether repealing DADT would likely be disruptive to the military services. In addition to the survey, Secretary Gates also asked Rand to revisit and update its 1993 report.

The CRWG also canvased foreign military services about their experiences with removing bans on gays and lesbians and updated what Rand and the Army had documented about foreign militaries in 1993. Many militaries such as the United Kingdom and Germany had lifted their bans on gay and lesbian service since the earlier report and had done so without incident. The military service academies, including the Coast Guard Academy, were also invited to submit white papers and all did so. In my opinion, one of the most important CRWG functions was the writing of the report itself. It was the writing team’s responsibility to pull together a vast amount of information from such sources as the history of the 1993 attempt to lift the ban, the survey results, the new Rand report, the service academies white papers, and the new assessments of foreign militaries’ experiences into a coherent and effective report that the President could deliver to Congress. Here Division 19 military psychologists were at the forefront.

Chief among them were Gerald “Jay” Goodwin, who was the overall lead writer for the report, and Gary Packard, who was the lead Air Force writer. Based in large part on the recommendations in the report, Congress repealed the DADT law. The repeal was signed into law and went into effect on September 20, 2011.

In my next column, I will provide the Society with a historical timeline of major Division 19 events members can use to familiarize themselves with our history and use to explain to prospective members among others just what Division 19 does and has done.

I welcome any comments and suggestions; especially suggestions for things members would like to see in future columns. I would also like to hear from military psychologists from other countries about the history of military psychology in their countries.

1 The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this article are solely those of the author and should not be construed as an official Department of the Army or Department of Defense position, policy, or decision unless so designated by other official documentation. This work was supported in part by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences under contract number W5J9CQ-11-C-0040.