Don't Ask, Don't Tell: History, Repeal & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The history of gay rights in the United States has not been a simple one. In this lesson, we'll check out the policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and see how it related to gay rights movements of the 1990s.

Don't Ask, Don't' Tell

Is it possible to serve in the American military and to be gay? While this may seem like a silly question today, it wasn't always. For most of the 20th century, the American military formally banned homosexual Americans from serving in the armed forces. In the 1990s, this debate reached new levels as the Gay Rights Movement and neo-conservative morality collided. President Bill Clinton announced a plan to undo the ban on homosexual service, and later arrived at a tentative compromise known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Clinton and the 1990s

The Gay Rights Movement in the United States began in 1969, and grew across the next few decades as LGBTQ Americans fought to end political and social discrimination. In the 1980s, this movement was reaching new heights, but met fierce opposition from conservative factions dedicated to the fierce protection of traditional hetero-normality.

After twelve years of conservative presidents (Reagan served for two terms and Bush Sr. served for one), many LGBTQ Americans were ready for a change in leadership. Many actively supported the Democrat nominee Bill Clinton, who had expressed a desire to change the discriminatory policies against homosexuality in American politics. Clinton won the election, and then he did the unthinkable, he started following through on a campaign promise.

Before even being sworn into office, Bill Clinton was already vocally discussing an end to the military's ban on homosexual service. The move was immediately criticized as being overly aggressive. The Senate Armed Services Committee, numerous military leaders, and other important figures all spoke harshly against Clinton's plan.

After being sworn in, Clinton had an uphill battle to face. He still wanted to eliminate the ban, but unfortunately he'd alienated Congressional and military leaders. So, Clinton set to work trying to reach a compromise. After much debating, he presented a solution. The military would allow homosexual men and women to serve, if they didn't openly discuss their sexuality. In turn, officers were not permitted to ask service members about their sexual orientation. The policy was quickly nicknamed as ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'', abbreviated as DADT.

Army training pamphlet on enforcing DADT


In some senses, DADT was a vindication. The military was now willing to openly accept the presence of LGBTQ service members in its ranks, even if they weren't allowed to be open about their sexuality. At the same time, it was a compromise which (like most compromises) left everybody unhappy.

Many leaders in the military were very reluctant to adopt DADT. They were convinced that the simple presence of gay and lesbian service members would diminish camaraderie, cooperation, and trust amongst the troops. At the same time, gay rights activists felt cheated that the President's early signs of fulfilling his promise were abandoned. To them, DADT still permitted institutional discrimination since gay service members were not legally allowed to acknowledge their sexual orientation. Several courts ended up agreeing with this assertion.

Graph polling question of whether people support (green) or oppose (red) openly gay service members in the military

In the end, DADT didn't change much in the military. Despite being legally prohibited from asking, officers still found ways to question a service member's sexual orientation, and many LGBTQ soldiers were released from duty without cause.

DADT Since Clinton

By the time that Clinton left office, Don't Ask Don't Tell was already unpopular. Of course, all of this was happening when the military was relatively uninvolved. Then, George W. Bush had the responsibility of dealing with 9/11 and committed the American military to fighting terrorism in the Middle East. It was the first time DADT was put to the test in times of a major military conflict. The policy quickly fell to new criticisms after several gay Arab linguists were discharged from service.

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