Unfriendly Fire Research Portal

7. What was the Role of Moral Opposition to Homosexuality in the Debate over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?

Despite claims that a ban on openly gay service was necessary to preserve good order, discipline, unit cohesion, and military effectiveness, the historical debate shows that the passage of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was ultimately based on moral animus toward gay and lesbian people, and not on empirical evidence or reasonable concerns about military readiness. This conclusion is based on a thorough examination of the rhetoric comprising the national debate over whether to lift the gay ban in 1992 and 1993, much of which infused and influenced the dialogue among lawmakers and military leaders who were responsible for the final law and policy. The historical record also shows a well-organized and effective campaign by religious conservatives to stigmatize gays and lesbians and cast them as a threat to the military’s effectiveness and core values, an effort supported by the letters, phone calls, and dollars of tens of thousands of Americans who saw the prospect of lifting the gay ban as a battle call. Examples of the sentiment, taken mostly from chapters #2 and #11 of Unfriendly Fire, are as follows:

  • The Military Working Group was the Pentagon-appointed task force charged with providing options to reform the policy that would be consistent with President Clinton’s pledge to lift the ban. Its June 1993 report, which served as the basis for the ultimate policy, stated that “lifting the ban would leave the military’s image ‘tarnished’” and that “the homosexual lifestyle has been clearly documented as being unhealthy. Due to their sexual practices, active male homosexuals in the military could be expected to bring an increased incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, which could create the perception of an ‘enemy within.’” It said that “the core values of the military profession would be seen by many to have changed fundamentally if homosexuals were allowed to serve,” and that “this would undermine institutional loyalty and the moral basis for service, sacrifice, and commitment” for the bulk of straight soldiers. This statement suggests it was the opinion of the military that the “core values” of the armed forces are, and properly should be, anti-gay.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lee Maginnis was an advisor to the Military Working Group, and subsequently became a vice president at the Family Research Council. Maginnis wrote a 1993 paper entitled, “The Homosexual Subculture,” which indicted the mental health of gays and lesbians. “Homosexuals are a very unstable group,” he wrote, whose lifestyle “breeds enormous amounts of guilt” over their promiscuity, dishonesty, and failed relationships. “They are restless in their contacts, lonely, jealous, and neurotic depressive.” He concluded that, “as a category of people, homosexuals have a greater indiscipline problem than heterosexuals.” The misleading essays by the Family Research Council and othe anti-gay groups found their way into the center of the debate, as senior military officials took up their call to action, secured slots to testify before Congress, and entered their publications into the Congressional Record.
  • Retired Marine Brigadier General William Weise released a report in 1993 saying that “the real goal of gays and lesbians in the military fight was to change society’s behavior, indoctrinate children, stop HIV screening, repeal age-of-consent laws, secure federal funding for explicitly sexual art, and protect abortion rights.” Weise was allowed to testify before Congress about the gay ban, where he said that letting gays serve would turn the military into a “wishy-washy force” that would “needlessly cost thousands of American lives,” because militant activists were demanding “special rights.” He said that his report found there was “much higher criminal activity among the homosexual than the heterosexual population in the military,” even though his evidence consisted exclusively of homosexual court-martial records and a made-up figure for how large the gay population was in the military.
  • Commander Eugene Gomulka argued in a 1992 position paper distributed by the senior leadership of the Marine Corps that the government had a “legitimate role to play in checking the spread of homosexual behavior,” especially among “innocent” young soldiers, whose minds are still in their “formative stages,” and thus especially vulnerable to the sexual predations of gays and lesbians.
  • The Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches wrote a letter to President Clinton in January 1993, which said letting gays in the military “would do more than just undermine discipline and morale, although they would do that as well. Homosexuals are notoriously promiscuous.” They are “perverted,” “aggressive recruiters,” and “going for the young—pedophiles.” Should “innocent soldiers” be forced to serve “with someone lusting after them?” Should they be required to aid injured comrades “whose body fluids may be spilling out, without the benefit of latex gloves?”
  • In his book, Military Necessity and Homosexuality, retired Colonel Ronald Ray contended that gays were addicted to sex, that they engaged in practices that “are inherently degrading or humiliating and are rarely practiced by heterosexuals,” that pedophilia was “close to the heart of homosexuality,” and that gays acted compulsively to obtain sex, especially once they come out of the closet. “The gay community,” he wrote, was “seized by a deadly fatalism that sees life as absurd and short.”  They do not care about the future or about others, only about the pleasures of the moment.  “They have no direct links with the next generation, no reason to invest in the future, no reason to defer gratification. Their lives consist of little more than having an exciting time while life lasts and seeking ‘self-fulfillment,’ a modern euphemism for selfish gratification and ambition.”
  • Representative Robert Dornan of California said in Congress, “You gentleman all know that the best of your troops can never respect and thereby follow orders totally from someone who likes taking it up the bum, no matter how secret he keeps it. Once it leaks out, they think this person is abnormal, perverted, and deviant from the norm.”
  • Colonel John Ripley, a retired marine, called gay people “walking depositories of disease.” Under the “queers, cowards, and thieves” rule, which according to Ripley was a mainstay of the Marine Corps, anyone falling into any of these categories would be alienated from the group and possibly thrown overboard.
  • Brigadier General James Hutchens, the associate director of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Commission on Chaplains, testified before the House of Representatives that homosexuality was a dangerous “moral virus” that must be stopped. He left Congress with a list summarizing the Bible’s views on homosexuality: 1. The wrath of God is being revealed against it.  2. It is based on a refusal to honor God.  3. It is based on ingratitude toward God.  4. It is based on a willful choice.  5. God has lifted his restraining hand.  6. What starts as a choice becomes all-consuming.  7. Those who practice it know full well God’s decree, yet continue to aggressively promote this behavior.  8. Condoning homosexuality is wrong, and is a further step away from God.
  • General Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in March 2007, “I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.” Six months later, he was forced to step down.
  • Admiral John Hutson, former Judge Advocate General of the Navy and a supporter of the gay ban in the internal Navy debates over gay service in 1993, has said that senior military officers exaggerated the risks to unit cohesion while minimizing the true religious and cultural basis of their opposition to gay service. He says Navy leaders “declined” to discuss the issue in terms of morality even though moral animus against homosexuality was the real reason they resisted the change. Hutson, who now opposes “don’t ask, don’t tell,” called the policy a “moral passing of the buck” because senior military and political leaders tried to blame the supposed intolerance of young recruits for the ban.  None of the Navy officials responsible for helping formulate the policy “had much of a sense of what was going on,” he says, and “decisions were based on nothing. It wasn’t empirical. It wasn’t studied, it was completely visceral, intuitive.” The policy was created entirely “by the seat of our pants.” Without genuine research supporting the ban, “we hung everything on the question of unit cohesion,” Hutson said. “That was the catch phrase.””
  • General Robert Alexander, the first head of the Military Working Group, acknowledged that its members did not understand what “sexual orientation” meant, and “had to define in the first few sessions what we figured they were talking about.” When Alexander warmed to the idea of letting gays serve, he was removed from his position. Alexander admits that the Military Working Group “thought they knew the results of what was going to happen” before they met, and that it was “going to be very difficult to get an objective, rational review” of the policy. “Passion leads and rationale follows,” he says, adding that his group “didn’t have any empirical data” about gay service and the Military Working Group position was based on fear, politics and prejudice.
  • Vince Patton, the highest-ranking enlisted person in the Coast Guard in 1993, and then a member of the Military Working Group staff, has said that the group “had already made a decision about what they were going to do” before the meetings. He says the group’s leaders did not weigh research and instead met “behind closed doors” and made decisions based on “anti-gay stereotypes and resistance to any outside forces that challenged military tradition.”

Professor Charles Moskos, known as the academic architect of the policy, acknowledged that he defended his policy in part because he worried he would disappoint his friends if he “turncoated.” Moskos also admitted that “unit cohesion” was not the real reason he opposed openly gay service, saying “fuck unit cohesion; I don’t care about that.” Despite rooting his public opposition to openly gay service in unit cohesion, he said the real reason is the “moral right” of straights not to serve with known gays. Moskos told lawmakers that the principal reason for the gay ban is to repress the homoerotic desire that is an inherent part of military culture. Recalling the hearings, a colleague of Moskos’ claimed they were “all rigged. Moskos and Nunn had already found an agreement” and the hearings proceeded in an effort to bolster the pre-determined conclusion that a ban ought to remain in place.

A co-production with Palm Center