Imagine packing the contents of your desk into a cardboard box. In goes the picture of you and your wife on holiday followed by the jokey old coffee mug your colleagues gave you and lastly some battered chewed up old pens. Imagine going home and telling your wife you were fired. You weren’t stealing office supplies; you weren’t slacking on the job. No you were fired for loving her. Absurd? Not so absurd for the United States Forces who fired 13,389 of its soldiers, sailors and air crew based on who they fell in love with.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) was introduced in the United States on the 21st of December 1993. This legislation banned military recruiters from asking the sexuality of applicants and anyone in the Armed Forces from trying to find out. It also stated that any member of the Armed Forces would be discharged if they revealed they were homosexual or made any statement indicating a tendency towards homosexuality. President Bill Clinton considered this to be a suitable compromise after the previous legislation which denied anyone identifying as homosexual the ability to serve in the Armed Forces. When DADT was first introduced the government stated that it would promote unit cohesion and military readiness.

Officer Rice is an officer in the US Army, studying medicine while in the forces, she is 24 years old and has been serving for three years. She has noted that there is pressure to act heterosexual to keep her job safe: ‘When I first joined the military I was hardly out to anyone so there were more than a few times when people would ask me about boyfriends and things like that and I’d make something up. It’s always in the back of my mind, just going in one day and finding out that I’m going to be kicked out.” Officer Rice then added that there is a high level of suspicion in regards to senior unmarried female officers. ‘On the enlisted side there are more suspicions and you don’t tell the senior people there.’

DADT has received much criticism over the 17 years since its inception. However it was upheld in four of the federal courts of appeal and also in a Supreme Court case. In 2004 a federal lawsuit was filed by the Log Cabin Republicans – America’s largest gay Republican organization. It was bought to trial in 2010 when the judge ruled that DADT was unconstitutional as it violated both the First and Fifth Amendments.

President Barack Obama had repeatedly expressed his intent to repeal DADT, both in his presidential campaign and since his election. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that he set a timeline to discuss the repeal with Congress and the military.

The repeal was making good progress in America under an amendment to the National Defence Authorisation Act which stated the DADT would be repealed 60 days after a study by the US Department of Defence was completed and the US Defence Secretary, the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff and the US President had all certified that the repeal would not negatively impact on military readiness. However, this amendment came to a grinding halt when Senator John McCain led a successful filibuster against it. This sudden blow left supporters of the repeal devastated, “I’ve followed DADT for the past several years, and I’ve gotten my hopes up SO many times only to have them crushed (usually by John McCain).”

In December, a stand-alone bill rather than an amendment to an existing Act was bought forward to repeal DADT. On December the 15th the bill passed through the House of Representatives with 250 members voting for and 175 voting against. On December the 18th the bill passed through Senate with 65 senators voting for and 31 voting against. The repeal was signed into law by President Barack Obama
on the 22nd of December who said:

“This law I’m about to sign will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend. No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who were forced to leave the military – regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance – because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniforms be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder, in order to serve the country they love.”

However, DADT has not been immediately repealed. First the President, Secretary of Defence and Chairman of the Joints of Staff must certify that the repeal “is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces”. Once this has been done there will be a 60 day period until the repeal is official. Rice said: “Since it isn’t certified and completely repealed yet there hasn’t been much of a difference. I’ve heard one or two comments, in the sense of people making gay jokes and saying, “Well Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed, so you can come out now”.

DADT was not only discriminatory legislation that cost thousands of people the jobs that they loved but it also cost America millions of dollars to implement. The Williams Institute if the University of California carried on from research done by the University of California Blue Ribbon Commission in 2006 which had found that since its inception until 2003, DADT had cost $363.8 million to implement. The Williams Institute updated the research and found that from 1993 until 2008, DADT had cost $555.2 million. These costs are made up from various different factors; the cost of travel home for discharged service members, recruiting new service members to replace those lost and training the enlistees. It has been reported that at least 800 of the discharged service men and women had vitally important jobs such as pilots, combat engineers and linguists. The Armed Forces has discharged 59 fluent Arabic speakers, this is a skill that is in short supply and vital to current military operations. It can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $45,000 to replace a single discharged person of the Armed Forces, depending on the job they had and they skill set they possessed.

A study by a historian, Anne Loveland, shows that those who created DADT knew that they could not use their own personal morals as a reason to form law so used the unit cohesion argument instead. She also found that chaplains and evangelical groups wanted to present a case in support of DADT on the basis that gays and lesbians are an abomination but polls of public opinion showed that people did not share this view and they would have more chance if they had a military related argument. Rice said: “ It probably took so long because the military tended to be more conservative on the whole, and it took 10 years of older guys retiring and newer 20-somethings joining in who didn’t care. Kind of like the attitude which is reflected for gay marriage here; the younger generations don’t care as much and it’ll continue to be that way until in about 30 or so years when the most anti-gay folks have died off.”

DADT has ruined people’s lives for 17 years, denying them the jobs they wanted and serving the country they loved. Its repeal was long overdue but finally the estimated 65,000 homosexual people currently serving in the US Armed Forces can live their lives without the daily fear of their sexuality being revealed and used against them. Unfortunately it has come 13,389 people too late.

UPDATE: On July 22 2011 President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen signed and submitted a one-page written certification that the military is ready to repeal DADT fully. On September 20th DADT will end and people will finally be able to serve openly in the US military, a move that is long overdue. However, due to the Defence of the Marriage Act they will unable to get any federal benefits for their partners.

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