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Don't Ask, Don't Tell  
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In 1993, former President Bill Clinton attempted to lift the ban on sexual minorities in the military. Commonly known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the policy he proposed, which Congress later revised and codified into law, not only failed to end discrimination against gay men and lesbians in the military but in many ways worsened the situation for gay servicemembers and continued to allow the U.S. military to discharge them solely because of their sexual orientation.

The policy remained in effect from November 1993 until September 20, 2011, when its repeal became effective.

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Even though Clinton courted glbtq voters during the 1992 presidential campaign in part by promising to lift the gay ban through executive order, once in office he quickly became mired down in a heated political battle over the issue. Members of Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Senator Sam Nunn, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, opposed Clinton's plan. Already criticized for his lack of military experience, the new President faced a difficult choice between fulfilling his campaign promise to gay and lesbian voters and appeasing congressional leaders and his top military advisors.

In January 1993, Clinton announced that he would seek a compromise and attempt to revise the former policy on homosexual service members into a more tolerant one. In July, after much negotiation between the White House, the Department of Defense, and Congress, he presented his proposal, which in turn, Congress heavily revised before codifying "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" into law.

The final version differed markedly from Clinton's original intent. Ironically, it closely resembled the previous policy's restrictions on homosexual status and conduct in the military. Yet, as Janet Halley argued, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was much more sinister than it appeared and was "much, much worse than its predecessor," for it "discharge[d] people on grounds that tie status to conduct in surprising, devious, ingenious, perverse, and frightening ways."

The previous policy was explicitly anti-gay and banned service outright; it made no pretense of accepting gay men and lesbians in the military. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" appeared less discriminatory because it did not allow the military to ask recruits about their sexual orientation when they joined, thereby making it possible for closeted gays and lesbians to serve. Yet the moment service members "told," or made statements that remotely suggested they might be gay or lesbian, under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the military had grounds to investigate and discharge them for being homosexual or participating in homosexual sex.

According to Halley, the ease with which the policy allowed commanders and investigators to conflate status and conduct was what was so troubling about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The law gave the military the right to read any gesture that could suggest a propensity to engage in homosexual behavior--such as having gay friends, reading gay publications, or not conforming to gender stereotypes--as indicating the gay or lesbian identity of the service member, an identity that the law presumed is incompatible with military service.

Yet unlike earlier policies that prohibited gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" did not assume that glbtq people could not be good soldiers. Rather, it relied primarily on the unit cohesion rationale to assert that the ban on glbtq service members was necessary for the military to function properly.

The law argued that sexual minorities in the military "would create an unacceptable risk to the armed forces' high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion." Underlying this argument was the assumption that other military personnel, the majority of whom are heterosexual men, were so uncomfortable with homosexuality that the mere presence of a known homosexual would seriously undermine unit cohesion and jeopardize the overall effectiveness of the U.S. military.

Contrary to the arguments and assumptions inherent in "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," numerous studies by social scientists suggested that the presence of open gays or lesbians in the military would do little to threaten unit cohesion. As Elizabeth Kier stated in her review of unit cohesion and its relation to military effectiveness, "[T]he open integration of gays and lesbians would not disrupt unit cohesion or undermine military performance."

In fact, Kier questioned commonplace assumptions that shared values and beliefs or even liking one's fellow service members lead to increased cohesion. In more extreme situations too much group cohesion can lead to "fragging," or the intentional sabotage of the military by its own members. According to Kier, "Group cohesion can limit organizational performance when it encourages the primary group to pursue goals that are at odds with those of the formal organization."

In spite of the military's insistence that banning gay men and lesbians protects unit cohesion, Kier showed that literature on cohesion, along with the military's own policies and experiences managing it, suggested a much more complex story.

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President Bill Clinton (above) intended to increase military tolerance of gay and lesbian servicemembers, but the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy has not eliminated discrimination.
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