“Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was the official United States policy on military service by gays, bisexuals, and lesbians, instituted by the Clinton Administration on February 28, 1994, when Department of Defense Directive 1304.26 issued on December 21, 1993, took effect, lasting until September 20, 2011. The policy prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants, while barring openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service. This relaxation of legal restrictions on service by gays and lesbians in the armed forces was mandated by United States federal law Pub.L. 103–160 (10 U.S.C. § 654), which was signed November 30, 1993. The policy prohibited people who “demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” from serving in the armed forces of the United States, because their presence “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability”.
The act prohibited any homosexual or bisexual person from disclosing their sexual orientation or from speaking about any homosexual relationships, including marriages or other familial attributes, while serving in the United States armed forces. The act specified that service members who disclose that they are homosexual or engage in homosexual conduct should be separated (discharged) except when a service member’s conduct was “for the purpose of avoiding or terminating military service” or when it “would not be in the best interest of the armed forces”. Since DADT ended in 2011, persons who are openly homosexual and bisexual have been able to serve.
The “don’t ask” part of the DADT policy specified that superiors should not initiate investigation of a service member’s orientation without witnessing disallowed behaviors, though credible evidence of homosexual behavior could be used to initiate an investigation. Unauthorized investigations and harassment of suspected servicemen and women led to an expansion of the policy to “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass”.
Legislation to repeal DADT was enacted in December 2010, specifying that the policy would remain in place until the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certified that repeal would not harm military readiness, followed by a 60-day waiting period. A July 6, 2011, ruling from a federal appeals court barred further enforcement of the U.S. military’s ban on openly gay service members. President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen sent that certification to Congress on July 22, 2011, which set the end of DADT to September 20, 2011.
Engaging in homosexual activity has been grounds for discharge from the American military since the Revolutionary War. Policies based on sexual orientation appeared as the United States prepared to enter World War II. When the military added psychiatric screening to its induction process, it included homosexuality as a disqualifying trait, then seen as a form of psychopathology. When the army issued revised mobilization regulations in 1942, it distinguished “homosexual” recruits from “normal” recruits for the first time. Before the buildup to the war, gay service members were court-martialed, imprisoned, and dishonorably discharged; but in wartime, commanding officers found it difficult to convene court-martial boards of commissioned officers and the administrative blue discharge became the military’s standard method for handling gay and lesbian personnel. In 1944, a new policy directive decreed that homosexuals were to be committed to military hospitals, examined by psychiatrists and discharged under Regulation 615-360, section 8.
In 1947, blue discharges were discontinued and two new classifications were created: “general” and “undesirable”. Under such a system, a serviceman or woman found to be gay but who had not committed any sexual acts while in service would tend to receive an undesirable discharge. Those found guilty of engaging in sexual conduct were usually dishonorably discharged. A 1957 U.S. Navy study known as the Crittenden Report dismissed the charge that homosexuals constitute a security risk, but advocated stringent anti-homosexual policies because “Homosexuality is wrong, it is evil, and it is to be branded as such.” It remained secret until 1976. Fannie Mae Clackum was the first service member to successfully appeal such a discharge, winning eight years of back pay from the US Court of Claims in 1960.
From the 1950s through the Vietnam War, some notable gay service members avoided discharges despite pre-screening efforts, and when personnel shortages occurred, homosexuals were allowed to serve.
The gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s raised the issue by publicizing several noteworthy dismissals of gay service members. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time in 1975. In 1982 the Department of Defense issued a policy stating that, “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” It cited the military’s need “to maintain discipline, good order, and morale” and “to prevent breaches of security”. In 1988, in response to a campaign against lesbians at the Marines’ Parris Island Depot, activists launched the Gay and Lesbian Military Freedom Project (MFP) to advocate for an end to the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the armed forces. In 1989, reports commissioned by the Personnel Security Research and Education Center (PERSEREC), an arm of the Pentagon, were discovered in the process of Joseph Steffan’s lawsuit fighting his forced resignation from the U.S. Naval Academy. One report said that “having a same-gender or an opposite-gender orientation is unrelated to job performance in the same way as is being left- or right-handed.” Other lawsuits fighting discharges highlighted the service record of service members like Tracey Thorne and Margarethe (Grethe) Cammermeyer. The MFP began lobbying Congress in 1990, and in 1991 Senator Brock Adams (D-Washington) and Rep. Barbara Boxer introduced the Military Freedom Act, legislation to end the ban completely. Adams and Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colorado) re-introduced it the next year. In July 1991, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, in the context of the outing of his press aide Pete Williams, dismissed the idea that gays posed a security risk as “a bit of an old chestnut” in testimony before the House Budget Committee. In response to his comment, several major newspapers endorsed ending the ban, including USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Detroit Free Press. In June 1992, the General Accounting Office released a report that members of Congress had requested two years earlier estimating the costs associated with the ban on gays and lesbians in the military at $27 million annually.
During the 1992 U.S. presidential election campaign, the civil rights of gays and lesbians, particularly their open service in the military, attracted some press attention, and all candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination supported ending the ban on military service by gays and lesbians, but the Republicans did not make a political issue of that position. In an August cover letter to all his senior officers, Gen. Carl Mundy, Jr., Commandant of the Marine Corps, praised a position paper authored by a Marine Corps chaplain that said that “In the unique, intensely close environment of the military, homosexual conduct can threaten the lives, including the physical (e.g. AIDS) and psychological well-being of others”. Mundy called it “extremely insightful” and said it offered “a sound basis for discussion of the issue”. The murder of gay U.S. Navy petty officer Allen R. Schindler, Jr. on October 27, 1992, brought calls from advocates of allowing open service by gays and lesbians for prompt action from the incoming Clinton administration.