New 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Account Fills Gap in LGBTQ History Books – Foreign Policy

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In the popular narrative, the fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States began with the 1969 Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village against anti-gay police harassment and triumphed with the 2015 Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
But between those two historic events—and undeservedly obscured by their shadows—lies a 17-year movement that was just as essential to the achievement of equality: the campaign to repeal the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule. Established by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1993, the rule allowed gay people to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual identity hidden. It was sold as an improvement over previous rules that banned homosexuality outright and touted as a compromise. Instead, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell quickly proved to be even worse for gay soldiers, leading to almost two decades of cruel and systematic harassment, investigations, interrogations, entrapment, forced outing, and dishonorable discharges for the simple fact of being gay. It kicked out accomplished leaders, essential specialists, and decorated heroes; cut short thousands of careers; and left behind a wake of broken lives.
The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2010 was a milestone in the fight for equal rights for multiple reasons. First, it finally allowed gay people to serve openly in the military—the quintessential macho institution. Second, it helped upend the attitude in the United States that homosexuality was best not talked about, a disorder, and a sin. And third, the repeal made clear that treating homosexuality as a reason for dismissal denied gay people equal rights, helping the fight for marriage equality pick up speed and ultimately succeed five years later.
In the popular narrative, the fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States began with the 1969 Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village against anti-gay police harassment and triumphed with the 2015 Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
But between those two historic events—and undeservedly obscured by their shadows—lies a 17-year movement that was just as essential to the achievement of equality: the campaign to repeal the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule. Established by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1993, the rule allowed gay people to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual identity hidden. It was sold as an improvement over previous rules that banned homosexuality outright and touted as a compromise. Instead, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell quickly proved to be even worse for gay soldiers, leading to almost two decades of cruel and systematic harassment, investigations, interrogations, entrapment, forced outing, and dishonorable discharges for the simple fact of being gay. It kicked out accomplished leaders, essential specialists, and decorated heroes; cut short thousands of careers; and left behind a wake of broken lives.
Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, C. Dixon Osburn, self-published, 520 pp., $35, August 2021
The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2010 was a milestone in the fight for equal rights for multiple reasons. First, it finally allowed gay people to serve openly in the military—the quintessential macho institution. Second, it helped upend the attitude in the United States that homosexuality was best not talked about, a disorder, and a sin. And third, the repeal made clear that treating homosexuality as a reason for dismissal denied gay people equal rights, helping the fight for marriage equality pick up speed and ultimately succeed five years later.
Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is the essential missing piece in the gay liberation triumvirate.
It was a long slog with bad odds. The small group of people behind the campaign had to develop the political acumen of Washington insiders, the policy expertise to knock down the national security obstacles, and the fleet-footedness to establish a grassroots network to communicate with and protect gay people in the military. It goes without saying this also required an inordinate amount of dedication among the activists who believed this was of vital importance for gay rights.
One of those leaders was C. Dixon Osburn, who tells the story in his new book Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In 1993, Osburn, who is gay, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) together with fellow lawyer Michelle Benecke, a lesbian and former Army captain. The two set out with no experience and no money to overturn the new rule.
Clinton had promised to make it easier for gay people to serve in the military during his 1992 presidential campaign. Facing resistance in the services—expressed by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell’s argument that allowing gay people to serve openly would harm unit cohesion and the military’s preparedness—Clinton came up with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as a compromise. On the surface, it seemed it would be a “live and let live” approach, an improvement over the official World War II-era ban. If no one in the military asked if you were gay, you were not required to tell them. If you did tell, however, it would be grounds for discharge.
The compromise proved to be worse than before. Now, homophobic service members baited and harassed anyone they thought might be gay or lesbian in an attempt to force them to out themselves. Once outed, LGBTQ service members were discharged, losing their career, their benefits, and often their sanity. The military failed to tame the toxic, homophobic atmosphere on bases. Guidelines to prevent harassment were ignored, and witch hunts snowballed.
Osburn and Benecke heard from gay service members almost immediately about the new, poisonous atmosphere. The SDLN set up the equivalent of a 911 hotline, passing out cards with the phone number so service members could get answers and legal help. With no staff and a borrowed workspace, the duo raised $200,000 in 1993, their first year in their quest to take on the U.S. military, which had a proposed annual budget of $281 billion at the time.
Osburn’s book is an activist’s memoir of the campaign, but also a primer for how to take on Washington. We meet his allies in the movement, the members of Congress who helped and hindered the effort, and above all the gay and lesbian service members who came to Osburn and Benecke for help and became the core of a nationwide grassroots movement.
One of the most important “game-changers,” Osburn writes, was finding and assembling the data to demonstrate how the military was relying on gay service members while denying them their basic rights. In annual reports, the SLDN tabulated how many service members were discharged because of their sexual orientation and the damage done when the military lost their essential services. In total, the SLDN identified 13,650 service members who were kicked out under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
The most egregious example came in 2002 and 2003, soon after the 9/11 attacks, when the Defense Department discharged 32 Arabic linguists for being gay at the exact time their skills were most needed. At the time, a Washington Post editorial commented that “the desire to defeat al Qaeda has been preempted by an apparently more important priority: continuing the irrational discrimination against gay men and lesbians who would serve their country.”
What gives depth to Mission Possible is Osburn’s profiles of the women and men who came to rely on SLDN for help when they faced accusations that they were gay and their lives were about to be turned upside down. A young female West Point cadet was outed by her commander, who asked her in front of four other cadets whether she was lesbian. She refused to answer, and her commander confiscated her diary and emails and used them against her. She was disenrolled, but with SLDN intervention she received an honorable discharge and was not required to repay her tuition.
With Mission Possible, Osburn fills a significant gap in the written history of the long road to full LGBTQ rights.
The book’s most dramatic episode, and one that marks a turning point in the movement, was the murder of Barry Winchell, a 21-year-old private first class who was bludgeoned to death at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, by fellow service members who thought he was gay (177-204). At first, the military lied about the circumstances of Winchell’s death, claiming he died in a drunken brawl. Activists in nearby Nashville called the SLDN, saying they had reason to believe Winchell was gay and the Army was covering up the true story. The office went to work, and over the following months it helped piece together how and why Winchell was killed. Ultimately, the military backtracked and admitted that Winchell had been killed by a drunk service member who had beaten Winchell’s head with a baseball bat while calling him a “faggot.” Standing alongside was Winchell’s own roommate, egging the murderer on.
I was a Pentagon reporter at the New York Times when Winchell was murdered and wrote one story from Fort Campbell about his death. At the time, I respected SLDN as a reliable source of information on gay people in the military. But not until I read Mission Possible did I appreciate the full significance of Winchell’s murder, its cover-up, and its crucial role in the fight over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
The path to repealing the policy came in a pattern of one victory followed by at least one setback. Two generals and one admiral, all retired, became the then-highest-ranking officers to come out as gay in 2003, in a New York Times article in which they were quoted saying Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t work and that harassment of gay people in the military was commonplace. “Because gays and lesbians are required to serve in silence and in celibacy,” the admiral said, “the policy is almost impossible to follow. It has been effectively a ban.”
This got the attention of other officers and the public, but then-President George W. Bush, key members of Congress, and Pentagon leaders were unmoved. The presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008 finally opened the door. Admiral Michael Mullen, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress it was time to repeal the policy. “I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Mullen testified in Congress. “For me it comes down to integrity—theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”
Congressional opposition was dwindling, but the repeal legislation still failed to pass three times—before being voted into law at the last minute during the 2010 lame duck session. With that, gay and lesbian service members could, at least on paper, finally serve openly in the military without hiding their sexual orientation. They would now have the same legal rights as their peers.
With Mission Possible, Osburn fills a significant gap in the written history of the long road to full LGBTQ rights. And for all the accomplishments, that road is still long—especially in a world where many countries continue to consider homosexuality a crime.
Elizabeth Becker is the author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism and a former international economic correspondent at the New York Times.
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