Abolishing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Posted on February 10th, 2010 by Dr. Blumenfield

President Obama Wants to Abolish Don’t Ask, Dont Tell

alg_obama_dont_askPresident Obama in his State of the Union Address stated that he wanted to abolish policies that prohibited gays from openly serving in the military.  I am also glad to see that just this past month the American Psychiatric Association finally got around to supporting this position. “The U.S. should repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and allow capable men and women to serve without regard to sexual orientation,” said APA President Alan F. Schatzberg, M.D. Even more important a few days ago Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff said it was his personal belief that “allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right things to do.”

I thought this would be a good time to consider the history of this issue and what if any psychiatric implications would there be to such a change.

Early 20th Century – Gays Not Welcome in Military

There is evidence that the US military had a policy dating back at least as far back as pre World War II that recruits were not welcome in the military service if they were homosexual.  There were indications as early as the 1940s that some psychiatrists (in this case Harry Stack Sullivan) tried unsuccessfully to get the US military to accepts gays into military service .

         Harry Stack      Sullivan

Harry Stack Sullivan

No doubt there were gays in the military but it would have to be hidden and secret. The identification of homosexuality would be grounds for discharge. I believe in the earlier years that would have been a dishonorable discharge. During my time serving as a psychiatrist in the Air Force during the Viet Nam War it would have an administrative discharge.

Psychiatrists in the military were in an ethical bind. If they put information about sexual orientation into the  chart the patient could be removed from the military. Should military psychiatrists ask and should they write it in the psychiatric record? Of course during about the first ¾ of the 20th century homosexuality was officially considered a psychiatric disorder that in many cases was thought to be a condition that deserved treatment. Therefore one could understand if military leaders and even a compassionate military medical establishment would not want soldiers who were considered to be ill, to be in the military. Even though there was an increasing amount of understanding that this was a misconception and in fact the overwhelming majority of such soldiers did not feel in conflict and were not in need of therapy.

APA Eliminates Homosexuality from DSM

    Alfred M. Freedman

Alfred M. Freedman

In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association eliminated homosexuality from the official diagnostic manual. The history of how this came about and the implications of it for American psychiatry are quite significant. I had the opportunity to interview Alfred M. Freedman who was President of the APA at that time and he shared with me the behind the scenes activities which can be seen on You Tube in three sections or heard on Shrinkpod in it’s entity.

This acknowledged the changes that were taking place in most of the psychiatric community. It would still be some time before openly gay psychiatrists were accepted into the psychiatric establishment and were allowed to become professors of psychiatry or candidates at psychoanalytic institutes. Things were evolving…but not very much in the military.

President Clinton Officially Establishes Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

In 1993 President Clinton officially established the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy which essentially was saying that a gay person was welcome in the military as long as nobody knew about it. It did mean that recruiters were not allowed to ask nor were  military superiors allowed to do so.

It may not be so easy to picture the dilemma that a gay soldier who wanted to serve in the military would still have. They would be forced to lead a secret life and accept that the people around them would view them as a criminal worthy of punishment or at least banishment, should their true identify be known. It reminds me of the Muranos, the secret Jews who lived during the Spanish Inquisition. They had to pretend that they were someone else and would always have the fears of the dire consequences that would occur if they were discovered.

This policy has hit women in the military especially hard. Statistics on members of the military discharged under the ban showed that, though women accounted for just 14 percent of the armed forces in 2007, they made up more than 46% discharges for sexual orientation in 2007. Over all, the number of gay men and lesbians discharged from the military in 2007 rose to 627 from 612 a year before, according to Pentagon statistics.This is all occurring at a time when the military is having difficulty recruiting personnel , especially those with specialized language skills.

What Are the Concerns About Letting Gays Serve Openly in the Military ?

As with any piece of human behavior there can be conscious and unconscious determinants. No doubt some of the opposition to allowing gays into the military comes from underlying homophobia where there is a fear of close proximity to people who are gay. This can very well be based on unconscious latent homosexual impulses. Utilizing this line of reasoning to try to bring about change in US policy would not be very productive and most likely would only harden the resistance to reexamination of it.

However it may be useful to look at some of the rational arguments that have been raised. These concern the idea that soldiers, particularly in combat zones or where there are close quarters would be uncomfortable if they knew their comrades might have sexual attraction to them. This might lead to anxiety, poor morale and less military effectiveness. The same question was raised in regard to women in the military and as far as I know it has not been a problem.

More important there are many other countries which have gays serving openly in the military with no such problems reported. In one report 4 countries were studied in depth and they were Israel, Germany, Canada and Sweden. Military officials in each of these countries stated on the basis of their experience, the inclusion of homosexuals in their military has not adversely affected unit readiness, effectiveness, cohesion or morale. For example Israeli officials said that homosexuals have performed as well as heterosexuals and have served successfully in all branches of the military since 1948. Canada where problems in these areas were predicted said none had materialized

John M. Shalikashvili, a retired army general, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997, spoke out on this issue. He described having  a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine crew. He said that these conversations showed him just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers. He also quoted a Zogby poll of more than 500 service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, three quarters of whom said they were comfortable interacting with gay people.

One interesting question has been raised and that is whether or not such soldiers if they acknowledge their sexual orientation while on leave in certain Moslem countries could be subject to criminal prosecution there as some places have quite harsh laws against homosexuality. That reminds me that female military personnel in Saudi Arabia at one point were suppose  must wear black head- to-foot robes called abayas and ride in the back seat when off base. They could only leave base if a man accompanied them. The Air Force’s highest-ranking female fighter pilot sued to overturn this policy.  That is another story and such issues should not determine how the US decides to constitute our military forces. Good judgment obviously needs to be used when visiting  potentially hostile environments.


I do believe that we can take President Obama at his word and expect the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy to be lifted. His Secretary of Defense stated recently that that the President and he can take this process only so far, as the ultimate decision rests with Congress. I believe we will see a change in policy this year and it will go smoothly. We will look back on previous policies as we look back on the history of other prejudices and discrimination, which have existed, in our history.

Barry Goldwater

Barry Goldwater

I don’t find myself in agreement with Senator Lieberman from Connecticut too much these days, but I thought he put it very well when he echoed the words of  Barry Goldwater who said, “It’s not important if you are straight, just that you can shoot straight.”

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