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"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" and its repeal

For decades, the US armed forces sought to debar LGBTQ people from their ranks through a variety of mechanisms, and using a shifting array of justifications. Gay men and lesbians were variously denounced as 'sex perverts,' security threats, a danger to unit cohesion, and corrosive of combat effectiveness. But by the late twentieth century, overt anti-gay discrimination had become politically less tenable for the armed forces and their civilian Commander in Chief. During the Clinton era, the military altered its approach, introducing a policy known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' in 1993 which allowed LGB personnel to serve, but only so long as their sexuality remained 'in the closet.' DADT continued as official policy until 2011. In this seminar, we'll examine military homophobia; why DADT was introduced; how DADT functioned, and why it was ultimately overturned.

Indicative seminar questions:

  • Aaron Belkin has explored the 'queerness' of the US military. How do we square this conception with persistent institutional homophobia in the armed forces?
  • if DADT was intended as a 'compromise' between an all-out ban on queer personnel and acceptance of their service, why did many LGB service members regard it as 'worse' than the previous situation?
  • why did DADT seem to have more pernicious consequences for lesbian personnel than their gay male colleagues?
  • was the repeal of DADT in 2011 a case (as one writer put it) of 'progress where you might least expect it'? Why or why not?

Required reading:

NB: If pressed for time, at a minimum, please read Estes and ONE of the other essays.

Steve Estes, Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out (2007), ch.8, ‘The Ban’, pp.185-209, e-book

Beth Bailey, ‘The Politics of Dancing: ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Role of Moral Claims,’ Journal of Policy History 25: 1 (2013): 89-113

Aaron Belkin and Melissa S. Embser-Herbert, ‘A Modest Proposal: Privacy as a Flawed Rationale for the Exclusion of Gays and Lesbians from the US Military,’ International Security 27: 2 (Fall 2002): 178-97

Christin M. Damiano, 'Lesbian Baiting in the Military: Institutionalized Sexual Harassment Under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue,"' Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 7, 3 (1999): 499-522

Supplementary reading:

Oral history resource:

Library of Congress, Veterans History Project, ‘Speaking Out: LGBT Veterans’

‘Progress Where You Might Least Expect It: The Military’s Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”’, Harvard Law Review 127: 6 (April 2014): 1791-1814

Tarak Barkawi et al, ‘Rights and Fights: Sexual Orientation and Military Effectiveness’, International Security 24:1 (Summer 1999): 181-201

Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (1990) e-book

Aaron Belkin, Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Façade of American Empire, 1898-2001 (2012)

Aaron Belkin et al, ‘Readiness and DADT Repeal: Has the New Policy of Open Service Undermined the Military?’, Armed Forces & Society 39, 4 (Dec. 2012): 587-601

Lemer Bronson, The Last Deployment: How A Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq (2011) e-book

Alex Buchman (ed), Barracks Bad Boys: Authentic Accounts of Sex in the Armed Forces (2013), e-book

Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (2009)

Brandon A. Davis, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Background and Issues on Gays in the Military (2010), e-book

J Ford Huffman, The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: The Impact in Studies and Personal Essays by Service Members and Veterans (2012) e-book

Elizabeth Kier, ‘Homosexuals in the US Military: Open Integration and Combat Effectiveness,’ International Security 23: 2 (Fall 1998): 5-39

Alycee J Lane, ‘Black Bodies/Gay Bodies: The Politics of Race in the Gay/Military Battle,’ Callaloo 17, 4 (Autumn 1994): 1074-88

Kathleen A McNamara, ‘“Even if the Policy Changes, the Culture Remains the Same": A Mixed Methods Analysis of LGBT Service Members’ Outness Patterns’, Armed Forces & Society 47, 3 (2021): 505-29

National Defense Research Institute, Sexual Orientation and US Military Personnel Policy: An Update of RAND’s 1993 Study (RAND, 2010) e-book