Turning 'Unfriendly Fire' On U.S. Military's Gay Ban Intended as a productive if imperfect compromise, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has resulted in thousands of discharges — many of them involving servicemembers with critical skills. Historian Nathaniel Frank says it's time the ban was ended.
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Turning 'Unfriendly Fire' On U.S. Military's Gay Ban

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Turning 'Unfriendly Fire' On U.S. Military's Gay Ban

Turning 'Unfriendly Fire' On U.S. Military's Gay Ban

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During Barack Obama's presidential campaign, he said that he would work to overturn the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy on gays in the military. But gays in the military, gay-rights activists and other opponents of this policy are disappointed that all President Obama has done so far is to ask the Pentagon to assess the policy. Don't ask, Don't Tell limits the rights of the military to ask about sexual orientation, and it allows a gay person to serve, as long as that person doesn't disclose he or she is gay or engage in homosexual conduct.

Tonight, many public TV stations will show the documentary "Ask Not" as part of the series Independent Lens. It explores the effects of Don't Ask, Don't Tell on gay service-members and on the military. A little later, we'll meet one of the people profiled in the film, Alex Nicholson, a former Army human intelligence collector and translator who was discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Our first guest, Nathaniel Frank, is the author of "Unfriendly Fire," a history and analysis of policies on gays in the military. He's a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which does research on the areas of gender, sexuality and the military.

Nathaniel Frank, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about Don't Ask, Don't Tell, let's go back in time a little bit. You write that in America, men have drummed out of the military ever since the Revolutionary War, but when was that actually codified by the military?

Mr. NATHANIEL FRANK (Author, "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America"): Well, it wasn't mentioned really under World War I. Before that, people were drummed out of the military, as you say, basically over euphemisms like unnatural carnal copulation. You didn't mention homosexuality or sodomy until about World War I, when they re-codified the regulations that governed this. And it wasn't until World War II that people really began talking about a homosexual identity as part of the psychiatric community, trying to screen through people and in some ways to help them to be cured.

And then in the 1980s, there was a service-wide ban on homosexuals, and so it really crept through the 20th century, until we got to what is now the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.

GROSS: Let's go back to World War II for a moment. Was it during or after World War II that gay people were screened out before they could even get into the military?

Mr. FRANK: It was during World War II that gay people started getting screened out of the military based on what we know now as a homosexual identity. Before that, really regulations governed sodomy. That is, they governed the behavior. And they would kick people out for sodomy for gay or straight behavior. It included oral sex, too, and so it wasn't something that just focused on gay people or gay identity. And it was during World War II when, because of the psychiatric community largely, people began to view homosexuals as a consistent identity and that they were screened during that war and after and when new notions began to emerge that homosexual people were somehow a threat to military cohesion.

GROSS: So how were gays screened out during their recruitment and enlistment process?

Mr. FRANK: Well, because it was so difficult, in fact, to tell the difference between gay people and straight people, military and psychiatric screeners had to go out of their way to kind of create stereotypes about gays being effeminate, having sloped soldiers, being weak. And because of the stereotypes that they created, they came to believe what was really a creation of their own making. And so there were so many people that had to be screened through during the mobilization for World War II that there was scarcely time to really go into depth about what would constitute a homosexual.

But more important, there were no real differences in the way people, you know, acted and behaved. And so people relied on these notions that are still lingering and persisting today but really have no bearing on whether someone is homosexual or not. And so these stereotypes have lived on, and really some of them came out of the World War II era.

GROSS: So let's jump ahead to candidate Bill Clinton, when Bill Clinton was running for the presidency and he said during his campaign that he wanted to eliminate the ban on gays in the military. Why did that become a campaign issue for him?

Mr. FRANK: Well, Bill Clinton was really one of the first presidential candidates to court the gay vote. He also had gay friends. He had gay aides and colleagues, and he was genuinely more comfortable around gays and lesbians than people before him.

He also thought that lifting the ban would be easy, and in a sense, it would have been easy. It could have been easy if he had gone ahead and lifted the ban by executive order. He eventually got cowed into hesitating about that, but he thought it would be as easy as lifting the ban with the stroke of a pen. And he spoke to some gay aides and gay friends, and he said, what do I need in order to reach out to the gay community? And some of them said, well, you have to lift the ban on gays in the military. And he said, rather glibly: done, what else? He really underestimated the extent of the resistance that he would encounter.

GROSS: Now, President Truman used an executive order to integrate the military. So he didn't go to Congress. Why did President Clinton feel that he was unable to allow gays in the military through executive order?

Mr. FRANK: Well, it's true. Truman did de-segregate the military with an executive order. Clinton didn't go to Congress himself. It was Congress under Sam Nunn, who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a very powerful ally of the military, a senator from Georgia, who really created among the fiercest resistance to Clinton's promise to lift this by executive order. And he began to threaten that he would write the gay ban into law as a matter of federal legislation. That was going to become the first time that the gay ban was governed by federal law because up until that point, it had just been a Pentagon policy.

So Clinton did initially think that he could lift this very quickly. He didn't choose to issue an executive order right off the bat. He thought that he would try to reach out, and as was his tendency, to please all parties. And it ended up that he wasn't able to do that.

He had a long-standing kind of relationship with the military of unease and tension because of his reputation as a draft-dodger, so that while he had avoided service, he perhaps out of guilt, really had a sense that military personnel were people that deserved to be looked up to and to be respected. And so he hesitated. He reached out to the military, and over a short period of time, he became, I think, too fearful to move forward against their resistance.

GROSS: Why was Sam Nunn so opposed to allowing gays in the military?

Mr. FRANK: Well, Sam Nunn was a conservative Democrat, a socially conservative person who had dismissed a couple of aides in the 1980s because they were gay. He had said some things about homosexuals and the family that sort of bought into the religious right rhetoric of the time, that homosexuality was somehow abnormal, immoral and a threat to the family. And by all accounts it seems that his personal discomfort and intolerance of homosexuality is what played a factor here.

Now he didn't acknowledge that. He said that he had personal feelings, but they weren't going to play into how he ran his hearings. But the way he did end up running the congressional hearings that were the result of this Clinton campaign promise, they were really stacked against openly gay service in the military.

GROSS: Let's get back to those hearings in a moment. I want to ask you about how the Christian right mobilized against allowing gays in the military, right after Bill Clinton was elected and also continued mobilizing during the hearings that Sam Nunn held. What were the groups that were active in this movement, and what were some of the main themes that they hit?

Mr. FRANK: There were several groups among the religious right who fiercely opposed the idea that gays would be allowed to serve in the military. And as soon as Clinton was elected, they swung into action. You know, people really had been concerned that - among this population that Clinton represented everything that was wrong with the '60s, the lax morality, the secularism, the endorsement of alternate lifestyles.

So there were groups like the Family Research Council, James Dobson, as well as members of the military chaplaincy, who circulated letters and petitions and swamped the White House and congressional switchboards, beginning right when Clinton was elected and then again when he was inaugurated in January. And they circulated papers, and in fact created a film called "The Gay Agenda," which took some of the most extreme footage of gay pride parades in San Francisco, circulated it all the way up to the top of the chain of the military, including members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to act as though this is what would happen to the military if gays were allowed to serve openly. That you would literally have gay-pride floats drifting onto military bases, you would run out all the virtuous men and women, and you would be left with a pink military.

GROSS: It sounds like, left with a drag queen military is what they were trying to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANK: Right, and it wasn't just the religious right. People like Senator John McCain ended up in the hearings asking about transgender and bizarre behavior, that's a quote, bizarre dress, these stereotypes and these fear tactics. Some of which were genuine fears, I'm sure, and some of which were clearly exploiting a political moment to make it seem like letting gays serve openly and honestly in the military, which is really all that this was about, would somehow transform the military and transform the culture into the worst, most extreme vision of a kind of, you know, Sodom that members of the religious right and other social conservatives couldn't stand by. And this was a really well-funded, well-oiled, coordinated effort that, as I looked through these files and these films and the letters, really surprised me when I was researching this, just the extent of what this campaign ended up being. And I think it's really because of that campaign and those religious right groups and some of the conservative lawmakers who answered to them, that's the reason that Clinton ultimately failed to lift the ban.

GROSS: Now you quote a newsletter from the National Association of Evangelicals that said: How can God bestow his favor on an army or a nation which condones that which he declares to be an abomination?

Mr. FRANK: You know, that's a very important quote because I think, as much as it's easy to dismiss some of the opposition as demagoguery and, you know, exploiting fears, that there were among many people genuine fears that they as Christians were supposed to witness and testify against evil and that their necks were really on the line.

Literally, their path to heaven could have a hurdle thrown in front of it if they didn't do what they believed to be their duty, to speak up and speak out against what they saw as the sanctioning or endorsement of homosexuality.

You see it in their literature, with the old sort of 19th-century all-caps and several exclamation points that they're really trying to stick out their necks and holler about this because they think that an angry god will rise up against them if they let this happen. And I think it's an important and fascinating facet of the resistance. It's not the entire story, because there were people who simply had old-fashioned prejudice or were catering to prejudice among constituents.

GROSS: So do you think the Christian right had its greatest effect on President Clinton, on Sam Nunn's Senate Committee on Intelligence, on the military, on all of the above?

Mr. FRANK: I think, you know, it ends up being a tipping point. If the Christian right had not been as vociferous and successful in mobilizing to turn the tide of public opinion and to animate some of the lawmakers who, you know, could have remained less opposed, then you may not have gotten that tipping point where it became, in Clinton's eyes, too politically costly to press forward.

So public-opinion polls did register this impact. So between November, when Clinton was elected, when public opinion polls registered about a 50-50 split about whether they supported letting gays serve, between then and January, when Clinton took office and called for a six-month study period, that's when the hearings occurred, public support for gays in the military slid from about 50 percent to a low of about 41 percent. And that in itself I think did have an impact on Clinton's decisions, ultimately later that spring, to acquiesce, to stop spending political capital and to say, enough is enough. I have a broader domestic agenda here and I'm going to take this compromise, and I'm going to call it an honorable compromise, which is eventually what he did to try to claim a kind of victory.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nathaniel Frank, and he's the author of the book "Unfriendly Fire," which is a history and an analysis on the ban on gays in the military. It's also an analysis of why, in his opinion, Don't Ask, Don't Tell doesn't work and actually hurts the military. We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nathaniel Frank, and he's the author of the book "Unfriendly Fire," which is a history and an analysis on the ban on gays in the military. So finally, Don't Ask, Don't Tell was crafted as a compromise. What exactly was the compromise?

Mr. FRANK: The compromise that became Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a policy, and it was also written into law at around the same time, that said the military would stop asking at recruitment whether someone was gay or not. And in turn, people were not allowed to say whether they were gay, which also meant they were not allowed to engage in any kind of sexual activity, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Earlier compromises had been floated by Congressman Barney Frank, which would have been a kind of lighter Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which would have allowed people when they were off-base to engage in any kind of behavior and to speak honestly about their sexual orientation. But the policy that ended up prevailing was one that says you can't admit that you're gay, and you can't engage in any homosexual conduct.

Now the policy was expressed in such a way that people wanted us to believe this was only regulating behavior. That was the American way. That was consistent with Clinton's sort of campaign philosophy that in America, you should never be punished for who you are, if you happen to be gay, but for how you behave. And if you were to engage in homosexual behavior, which included speaking about it, that would still be deemed a threat, and you could be kicked out. And so that's the policy we have.

Again, there's never been any evidence showing a link between saying that you're gay or engaging in homosexual conduct, particularly off-base. There's been no link established between that and unit cohesion, effectiveness, recruitment, retention, any of the ways that people measure the effectiveness of the military. But that was the compromise that Clinton allowed to prevail. And then Congress, under Sam Nunn, as part of this compromise, chose to put it into federal law for the first time ever because before this, it had been just a Pentagon regulation.

GROSS: What is the significance of the fact that under President Clinton, Don't Ask, Don't Tell became law, congressionally passed law, as opposed to just military policy?

Mr. FRANK: Well, a couple things. First of all, at a practical level, once the gay ban, in whatever form it took, became federal law, it became that much more difficult to get rid of. And we see that now. We see the difficulty getting rid of the policy because Obama no longer has the power to repeal the policy with the stroke of a pen. He could suspend the policy, but he needs to go through Congress to fully, permanently repeal this and get it off the books. And that makes it tougher. That means that he faces what will probably be another battle, though certainly not one as strenuous as what we had 16 years ago because it's a very different political and cultural world.

It also, in my view, the fact that this is a law is a real embarrassment to the United States. And this is shown, I think, in the policy becoming the butt of jokes both inside the military and on comedy shows, as well as abroad, where Israel and Britain actually studied what America was doing when they decided to assess whether they should lift their ban. And they thought that this had been a disaster. And the fact that American law actually says you can allow gays in the military, but you have to force them to pretend they're not gay, to actually lie or deceive people, the fact that that is written into American law I think is an embarrassment and that that's the way it's been seen by a lot of people. And that if it were just depending on policy, it would still be bad, but it's that much worse by virtue of being an actual law.

GROSS: I know you've been following this story very closely lately. So I'm wondering, what you think President Obama will do, if anything, about Don't Ask, Don't Tell with the economic - you know, when he was a candidate, he said he would try to overturn it, but with the economic crisis, with health care and health insurance being a priority for him, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Don't Ask, Don't Tell is hardly at the top of his list. So do you have a sense of if and when he would get to it?

Mr. FRANK: Well, Obama was very, very clear as a candidate not only that Don't Ask, Don't Tell should go but that it should go now. He said the work to end the policy should've begun long ago. That work will begin when I take office. And by most accounts, it didn't begin when he took office and hasn't begun in earnest yet.

Now the White House, I think, finds itself on the defensive. He has made it very clear that he opposes the policy. He has said he will be a fierce advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians. And yet he's really remained silent about gay rights at all. And you know, we have marriage battles brewing in several courts and in federal courts, and the first African-American president has chosen to stay silent on what is among the biggest civil rights battles of our time.

I think the White House made a decision early on that it didn't want to wade into what it saw as culture war issues. And I don't begrudge them for wanting to prioritize the economic crisis and national security, but of course, this policy is an issue of national security. It's not just a culture war issue. It will certainly be less fierce, I think, of a culture war issue when it comes up in earnest.

And so Obama could issue an executive order using his powers of stop-loss, that is to stop the loss of military personnel, to say enough is enough. We're going to stop the bleeding. We're going to stop discharging service members just because they're gay. And then he could, a few months down the road, go to Congress and point to the reality of openly gay service and say, look, the sky hasn't fallen. Now let's move to get this off the books.

So it would be a one-two punch. It would be an executive action, and then Congress would move to get it off the books. But for the moment, I think Obama has been cowed into delaying on this issue instead of doing what he said he would do as a campaign promise, which is to lift the ban and to start that work very quickly. And I think a lot of us had patience for a certain amount of time, but at this point he really owns the policy. Discharges are continuing under him. And I think that in trying to avoid Clinton's mistakes, he's ironically, potentially repeating some of them by delaying. And it was during the delay in the Clinton era that this issue really began to fester and become an issue that derailed Clinton. I hope Obama takes the right lesson from that and not the wrong one.

GROSS: Nathaniel Frank will be back in the second half of the show. He is the author of "Unfriendly Fire." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with historian Nathaniel Frank, the author of "Unfriendly Fire," a critical history of policy on gays in the military. He's a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which conducts research on gender, sexuality and the military.

You consider Don't Ask, Don't Tell not only a wrong policy, but a damaging policy. What are the ways that you think Don't Ask, Don't Tell has damaged our national security?

Mr. FRANK: Well there's quite a few ways. First of all, we've fired over 13,000 service members just because they're gay. This is a profound loss to the military because among those 13,000 service members who've been fired under the policy, there are over a thousand mission-critical specialists, including hundreds of linguists and many Arabic linguists -and we don't have enough people who speak Arabic to translate what the people that we're fighting, and whose hearts and minds we're trying win, what they're saying. And so that brain drain, that talent loss is really something that is unaffordable. And partly as a result of that, we're lowering our standards.

We're letting in more ex-convicts, felons, high school dropouts, drug abusers, people who may deserve a second chance at some point, but are really by definition considered less ready for military service than gays and lesbians. So the brain drain is really the big one. But also, what my research has found is that service members who are gay can't access the support services that are essential to military readiness. They can't speak openly to their chaplain, to a military doctor, a social worker. You see that in the film "Ask Not" where people talk about how they would've gone to a military psychiatrist to talk about what was bothering them, or some sense of post traumatic stress syndrome, but they don't. They can't.

They just suffer in silence or they leave early. And that's not a recipe for unit cohesion in our military effectiveness, to take the estimated 65,000 gay and lesbian troops and to force them to serve under a special burden that the rest of the military doesn't have to endure. This is not how you would create a ready force if you were doing it from the ground up.

GROSS: Now on a related note, you know relating to how gays in the military can't talk to chaplains, they can't talk about their sexual orientation to their commanders - you describe the policy as invading the privacy of all service members. Would you explain what you mean?

Mr. FRANK: Well that's right. This policy was supposed to make sexual orientation into a non-issue. But instead, under the policy, discharges shot up, harassment shot up. I think part of that was because of the political rhetoric surrounding this. And, of course, we talked about how the religious right issued damning critiques of what it meant to be homosexual. But what this policy does is it says to everyone: there are gays in your midst, showering with you, sleeping with you because they're allowed to be there now, but you're not allowed to know who's who. So it really cast a pall of suspicion, creating rumors and gossip around who's gay and who's not, when what it should've done, to really make sexual orientation a non-issue, was to issue one single standard of conduct and behavior for all service members. And that is, in fact, what has been shown to work in foreign militaries, like Britain and Israel.

There are a couple dozen that now let gays serve, including all of our major allies. And they find that when you have strong signals of clear leadership, number one, and number two, a single code of behavior for everyone, that's what allows people to focus on teamwork, and merit, and to know that there aren't different rules governing different people. And so this policy, which was supposed to kind of make sexuality less important ended up making it people's focus instead.

GROSS: What is the single code of behavior in the countries that you referred to?

Mr. FRANK: Well it depends on which service, which country, and so forth. But basically the idea is that it governs public displays of affection. It governs relationship and fraternization, which is when you have a relationship with someone of a different rank which is always forbidden, and it applies to everyone. And it talks about respect for individual's privacy, so some of it is rhetoric. But some of it is the code, that's an administrative and criminal code, that says you can't engage in certain behavior because that is deemed, whether you're gay or straight, to be prejudicial to good order: if you're having a relationship or having sexual relations on a ship, say, which is deployed; or fraternization, as I mentioned from you know, one rank to another; or overt public displays of affection, even among married people.

And these regulations vary according to the service, the base, the country, and the situation. But they don't vary according to whether your sexual orientation is straight or gay. And that's what really matters to making this kind of a thing work.

GROSS: Now as you bring up in your book, our troops are often fighting in multinational forces where the soldiers from other countries include gay people. So does that mean that in spite of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, our men and women are fighting alongside of homosexuals?

Mr. FRANK: That's right. And we have documented evidence that it's not just that our service members are fighting in countries where they allow openly gay service, but where they, in fact, have openly gay service members - that we know that our service members have been on ships, in multinational missions oversees, you know, plenty of spots, particularly in southern Afghanistan. We fight shoulder to shoulder with Canadians, British, Israelis, and we know of gay soldiers and leaders in those campaigns who are out and open. And so this is one among many facts that really undermine the foundation of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell rationale.

Another one related to that is that during wartimes, discharges for homosexuality always go down. They're often cut in half. Throughout the 20th century, history shows this. And the reason that's significant is because it shows that even the military doesn't believe that openly gay service undercuts unit cohesion or effectiveness, because at wartime, when cohesion and effectiveness are most important, the military looks the other way. And in this last round of wars we know that discharges have plummeted from about 1,200 a year to about 600 a year. And we also have, and I have them in my book, many instances of people who talked to me and said I went to my commander and I said this is the situation. I'm being harassed for this and I needed to speak up about it. And whatever the reason they made a statement and their commander said, get back to work.

GROSS: Now you're a senior research fellow at the Palm Center, which is a think tank, or a research center, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And your group, the Palm Center, recently commissioned a study on unit cohesion. What were the results that apply to Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

Mr. FRANK: Well we got together, in 2008, a bipartisan commission of retired senior military officers to look at all of the evidence that had accumulated throughout history, but particularly since 1993. It was the, I think, biggest study to assess this question since the RAND Study came out in 1993. And these were people who had previously, in some cases, been in favor of the gay ban and they took testimony from witnesses who had been involved in policy, as well as service members who had been affected by it, and they found once again, that sexual orientation had no bearing on unit cohesion.

In fact, they suggested that the language of the law, which states that open homosexuality would be an unacceptable risk to unit cohesion, was essentially made up. There was no basis for it. There was no empirical data. It wasn't clear where it came from. And keep in mind, one of the officers who served on this study commission last year had been the former chair of the military working group which wrote the military's blueprint to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. So these weren't just outsiders they were retired...

GROSS: Who was it?

Mr. FRANK: That was General Major Alexander, Robert Alexander, who had initially chaired the military working group. He, they had two chairs. He was the first chair. And he had been in favor of the Clinton ban. Fifteen years later, he said this was supposed to be a temporary policy, a kind of useful speed bump that would allow people to get used to the -what everyone really already knew, which was that there have always been gay people serving alongside of you. But he said 15 years is too damn long and that it was time to get rid of the policy. Because once we had had the time - as temperatures cooled over the last 15 years, and as acceptance of homosexuality has grown both in civilian and military culture - once we've had the time to look at the research and to assess this, people have begun to realize this has been based on nothing. It's just been a continuation of these old prejudices and assumptions that somehow homosexuality was a menace...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANK: ... to civilized society and would therefore be a threat to the armed forces. But it wasn't rooted in any fact at any point.

GROSS: Although President Obama has expressed his opposition to Don't Ask, Don't Tell and his interest in overturning it, he hasn't made any moves in that direction yet. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear a case challenging Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Do you think that there are legal challenges in the works that might overturn either the military policy or the congressionally passed law?

Mr. FRANK: There are court cases in the works that could overturn the policy. I don't think that it should or will likely play out in the courts. I think that Obama has the power of executive order and that Congress should look at this as well and say this isn't working. The courts have a long tradition of deferring to the military and to Congress in matters of national security. I think that's often unfortunate and that they should, in fact, strike down this policy as unconstitutional, but I don't think it's likely any time soon.

GROSS: Nathaniel, how did gays in the military become your issue? Have you ever been in the military?

Mr. FRANK: No. My father and grandfather were Army officers. But for me, this was a question of what it meant to me in the 1990s, when I was graduating college and studying to be a historian, what it meant that our country was instituting a law that really institutionalized the closet, that required people to deceive and lie - when, as a historian, I was training to tell the truth. And that kind of disconnect inspired me to start writing about this on the 50th anniversary of President Truman's executive order desegregating the military. And I've been writing about it ever since.

GROSS: Well Nathaniel Frank, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FRANK: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Nathaniel Frank is the author of "Unfriendly Fire." You can read an excerpt on our website, fresh.npr.org.

Coming up, we talk with Alex Nicholson, an Army translator who was discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell after 9/11. This is FRESH AIR.

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