Verdict Is In for ‘Don’t Ask’


President Clinton has finally acknowledged his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals in the military for what it is: a failure. In the last year of his administration, Clinton should undo this inherently unenforceable policy and accord homosexual personnel the same rights as their heterosexual comrades.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, adopted by executive order in 1993, ostensibly allows homosexuals to serve in the military so long as they do not openly discuss their sexual preference or engage in homosexual acts. Gays who volunteer information about their sexual preference can be discharged.

The policy was Clinton’s attempt to appease constituencies that cannot be reconciled: those who believe that gays and lesbians have the right to serve in the armed forces without harassment and those who regard homosexuality as a sin or otherwise detest the idea of gays in uniform. But the mixed message of “don’t ask, don’t tell”--that homosexuality does not automatically disqualify someone from military service but is so shameful or threatening that it must be concealed--ensured the policy’s failure from the start.


From 1993 to 1998 under the policy, originally called “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue,” the number of gay service members discharged rose almost 70%. Gay rights groups also report receiving a growing number of harassment complaints. Gays feel they must be silent within the military since to complain is to confirm their homosexuality and subject themselves to expulsion.

The military was unwilling to acknowledge the hate within its ranks until the murder in July of Pfc. Barry L. Winchell, 21, who had endured months of antigay taunts. Last week, Pvt. Calvin N. Glover, 18, was convicted by a court-martial of Winchell’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Clinton’s assessment in a weekend interview that his policy “as implemented does not work” followed particularly graphic testimony at Glover’s trial on the harassment Winchell suffered and the details of his beating death.

On Monday Defense Secretary William S. Cohen opened a probe to assess compliance at military bases with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But that policy can’t be fixed, and Cohen’s directive cannot substitute for a clear, coherent policy, one that holds gays and lesbians to the same behavior standards as heterosexuals, with the same rights and responsibilities. Clinton should take that step now.