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Definition: Don't ask, don't tell from Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable

A pithy summary of the US military policy on homosexuality adopted in 1994, whereby personnel were not asked about their sexual orientation and gays and lesbians were allowed to serve providing they did not openly reveal their sexuality. The usage spread subsequently to other areas.

Summary Article: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
from Encyclopedia of Gender and Society

The military policy “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass” was established by Congress in 1993. The Department of Defense policy is the result of President Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to eliminate the ban on homosexual and bisexual personnel in the U.S. military. The policy states that members of the military can no longer be asked to divulge their sexual orientation and that the military cannot actively seek out homosexual or bisexual members.

Before this policy was adopted, people seeking to join the military were asked to report any homosexual behavior, and anyone who was in the Armed Forces who was discovered to be engaged in same-sex acts was discharged from the service. Policy does not always match practice. Studies have documented that in times of great need, gay and lesbian personnel were often allowed to enlist or serve but most of these people were dishonorably discharged once the military felt they were no longer needed.

Clinton’s proposal represented a cultural shift in the United States, where same-sex relationships were gaining widespread acceptance. His initial proposal garnered intense opposition by some members in Congress. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is the result of a compromise between forces on both sides. The goal of the policy is to provide an opportunity for gays and lesbians to serve, but they can only do so if they do not reveal their sexual orientation. Additionally, it was believed that the history of “witch hunts” that previously occurred would be reduced. In 2005, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported that approximately 9,500 members had been discharged between 1993 and 2003. Because of the costs involved with training, discharging, and replacing these service members, the government estimates this cost to be almost $95 million. The report also documented a steady increase in discharges since the policy took effect.

Supporters of the policy often focus on two areas. The first is on the basis of civil rights, stating that whoever wants to serve and meets the basic requirements, should be allowed to serve. Supporters refute arguments about lack of morale and cohesiveness as being grounded in homophobia, myths, and stereotypes. If all conduct themselves in a professional and appropriate manner, then one’s sexuality does not affect the effectiveness of the unit. Another position is based on defining homosexuality or bisexuality as a sexual orientation and defining sexuality as inherent to an individual’s identity. Therefore, people are being discriminated against not because of certain assumed behaviors but instead because of their identities.

Those opposing establishment of the policy use more traditional arguments of exclusion. Although some cite objections based on religious beliefs, most believe that having homosexuals or bisexuals serving reduces the morale of a military unit. This is because heterosexual members are uncomfortable because of the physical closeness of living and training conditions. The basis for most of these arguments run along behavioral lines, that homosexuals choose to live a particular lifestyle that is contrary to the lifestyle of the military. Interestingly, heterosexuals are not presumed to be living a particular “heterosexual lifestyle.” Another basis is tied into beliefs surrounding sexuality, masculinity, and femininity. For example, some argue that homosexual men are more feminine and therefore weaker, which makes them poor soldiers. Others oppose the policy with the argument that the military should return to its original position of banning all homosexuals and bisexuals. Often the foundation for each of these points rests in religious beliefs. A new oppositional argument has recently emerged, one that opposes the policy in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.

Another area of debate resides in the safety of homosexual and bisexual service members. Some argue that the policy has increased sexual harassment, assault, and murder. Cases have been cited where supervisors were aware of anti-gay harassment but they chose to ignore rather than stop the behavior. Others speak of a general culture of homophobia that exists within the military structure, which fuels anti-gay behavior and attitudes. Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of incidents brought increased attention to sexual harassment and assault that many women face by males, but only recently have studies been conducted focusing on documenting current incidents of anti-homosexual or bisexual bias and violence. Many incidents of anti-gay behavior are based on a perception of homosexuality, which is largely shaped by myths and stereotypes. Some countries, such as Britain, have eliminated their ban on gays and lesbians and have found a dramatic decrease in anti-gay violence.

One unanticipated result of this policy is that after the events of September 11, 2001, there was an increased need for personnel who were fluent in a host of languages, such as Arabic, Farsi, and Korean. While the government appealed for people with these language skills to join the military, more than 300 service members with these skills were discharged because of issues related to homosexuality or bisexuality. Debates continue surrounding the effectiveness and need for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

    See also
  • Homosexuality; Homophobia; Military, Women Serving in; Military Masculinity

Further Readings
  • Belkin, A. Abandoning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will decrease anti-gay violence. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 131, (2005). 117.
  • Belkin, A.; Bateman, G. (2003). Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Debating the gay ban in the military. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  • Berube, A. (1990). Coming out under fire: The history of gay men and women in World War Two. New York: Free Press.
  • Bowling, K.; Firestone, J.; Harris, R. Analyzing questions that cannot be asked of respondents who cannot respond. Armed Forces & Society, 31, (2005). 411-437.
  • Herek, G.; Jobe, J.; Carney, R. (1996). Out in force: Sexual orientation in the military. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Human Rights Campaign Fund. (2006). “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass.” Availalble from
  • Yoshino, K. Assimilationist bias in equal protection: The visibility presumption and the case of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Yale Law Journal, 108, (1998). 485.
  • Kristina B. Wolff
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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