Inaccuracy Persists: Compliance Isn't About Silence

Despite public support for repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy many still fail to understand what it says and how it works. In a recent article at NBC Los Angeles online, Caitlin Millat makes a common mistake by stating that the 11 service members discharged in January "wouldn't comply with 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and openly discussed their homosexuality."

In fact, many people who have been discharged have had their closely guarded privacy invaded by the military. In one case discussed in the new book by Nathaniel Frank, Unfriendly Fire, a federal judge agreed that the Navy had violated federal law by obtaining private profile information from AOL. The policy does not protect privacy so much as it alienates and isolates people, and forces them to lie.

Nathaniel Frank points out the, "the absurdity of trying to abide by the 'don't ask,' and 'don't tell' clauses in the real world where subtle cues, cultural norms and reading between the lines can make it literally impossible to refrain from asking or telling." Things have changed so much since this law was enacted, that those subtle clues and cultural norms work against the policy. There are television characters who are not just gay, but unimposingly so. It is more awkward now to not be "out." While I don't know the specifics for each of the 11 service members recently discharged, I can only imagine that, like 12,000 or so others like them, they wanted to comply with the demands and regulations of military service.

Frank tells the story of Alex Nicholson, who wrote a private letter to his ex-boyfriend, in Portuguese, but was discharged after a colleague saw the letter on his desk, translated, and reported it. "Nowhere does the policy or its implementing regulations provide for the punishment of military members who do ask, do pursue or do harass," Frank points out, and in fact, "while the rules sharply limit investigations and the collection of evidence, no clause throws out evidence obtained improperly."

When the policy was created almost sixteen years ago, not asking or telling was the norm, now it is the exception. Compliance doesn't just require obedience to the rules, it requires denial of culture, self, and progress; it requires a kind of disconnectedness that is not only difficult, but dangerous. This is the underlying message of Frank's book and why the policy "undermines the military." And this is why it is so important that the oversimplification of Millat's article, that "don't ask, don't tell" is a simple matter of compliance with a rule of silence, be corrected, and the more complex issues and consequences be exposed.


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