“Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue.”
That’s President Clinton’s new compromise policy for gays in the military. The phrases sound simple and straightforward. But once you start asking exactly what they mean, things quickly get murky.
In the official definition, “Don’t ask” means the military will no longer ask recruits about their sexual orientation. “Don’t tell” means service members are not required to offer the information on their own. And “don’t pursue” means commanding officers cannot investigate a service member’s sex life without credible grounds for suspicion of homosexual acts.
But already there’s been all sorts of controversy over what it means to “ask” or to “tell.” The policy says a soldier can march in a gay parade, frequent gay bars, or attend a gay church-and none of that qualifies as “telling” anyone that he’s gay.
But if a soldier holds hands with someone of the same sex, or confides in private to the commanding officer that he or she is gay, that does qualify as “telling”-and could trigger an investigation leading to a discharge.
What if the soldier confesses a homosexual orientation to a fellow soldier and the other soldier reports it to the commanding officer? Well, that’s when things really get complicated.
With so much confusion surrounding the policy, most gays will find it prudent to simply stay in the closet-which is exactly what gays have always done in the military.
So has anything really changed?
Yes it has. The disturbing difference is that with its new policy the government explicitly requires gays to practice deceit. The San Francisco Chronicle put it this way: If up until now the Pentagon has declared homosexuality to be incompatible with military service, today it is declaring “truth and personal integrity . . . to be incompatible with military service.”
Now, it’s not often that I agree with the press on the topic of homosexuality. But on this point, I think the San Francisco Chronicle editorial is right. The crucial ethical issue facing us here is not gay rights but truth and integrity.
Of course, the new policy doesn’t force gay service members to lie, or to say anything at all. But it does require that they conceal the truth-that they hide information that would lead to their discharge if it were known. And it requires commanding officers to support the deception by looking the other way.
In effect, our military is still insisting that homosexuality is officially unacceptable. But where we used to say, “Tell us the truth, even if it costs you,” now we say, “Hide the truth from us, and we’ll let you get by.”
That’s the bigger issue surrounding this half-baked compromise. It’s a concern that many seem to have overlooked in the rush to take sides over gay rights.
Yet it’s something we ignore to our peril-because when a legal system sanctions deception, it forfeits its moral authority. Respect for law dissolves, trust in lawmakers corrodes into cynicism, and government loses the power to govern.
In the long run, “Don’t tell” won’t work. Our nation cannot afford to let gays out of the closet . . . at the expense of putting truth into the closet.