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CC Professor Studies Effects of the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

The policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” created deep contradictions in the U.S. military, according to a study co-authored by Economics and Business Associate Professor James Parco.

Military culture — but not military leadership — had already moved towards accepting lesbians, gays, bisexual, and “queer-identifying” service members long before the repeal last year of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” according to “Policy and Paradox:  Grounded Theory at the Moment of DADT Repeal.”  Still, the policy damaged lives and careers over its 18-year history, the study notes.

Parco and his co-author, David A. Levy, a professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, interviewed 17 active-duty service members within weeks of the repeal on Sept. 20, 2011, and followed up with many of them in extensive interviews in August. The study is the first academic research on the impacts of the policy on service members “at the moment of repeal,” Parco said.  Earlier studies were not possible because the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy could have ended the careers of service members who admitted they were not heterosexual.

Parco came to Colorado College in 2011 from the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Ala. He was on the faculty of the U.S. Air Force Academy from 2003-07.

See Jim Parco's micro lecture on the relationship between the perception of the warrior ideal and the argument against the repeal of "don't ask don't tell."

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The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was mandated in 1993 by Congress, with arguments that openly serving gays would hurt unit cohesion, military effectiveness, morale, order, and discipline.  At the time, only 40 percent of Americans told pollsters they supported the idea of gays and lesbians serving in the U.S. military, but in recent years as much as 79 percent say they do.

As American culture became more open, the culture of military leaders remained out of touch, Parco said.  The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was successful because it was enforced by the chain of command, but its repeal has also succeeded because the chain of command enforced the law, he added. “This was very clearly a leadership issue,” said Parco.

In lengthy interviews, the study participants told Parco and Levy that they lived double lives, suffered harassment and depression, and found their careers damaged because of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Some told the authors of attempted suicides, rape, fake marriages, problems with alcohol, blackmail, and other coercion.

“It’s just, it’s awful and it messes with your integrity and it messes with you as a human being and who you are,” one service member, a woman, told the authors, who interviewed men and women ages 19 to 43 from the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard.  Enlisted members, cadets, and officers were included.

Out of these interviews and other research, Parco and Levy found five “irreconcilable contradictions” in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The values contradiction.  “Integrity is not an option,” they write, because all in the service were forced to sacrifice their values.  Gay service members who served under the policy sacrificed their integrity by lying about their status to remain in the service. Officers who supported them also “were forced to sacrifice their values of obedience and loyalty to the institution” when they ignored suspected behavior. “The policy created a significant conflict for commanders who tried to maintain the integrity of the institution and simultaneously preserve their own,” they write.

Even those who opposed them sacrificed their own values, the authors write, noting stories of religious members who wanted to “help” LGBQ become “more moral” but could not under the policy. 

“The wartime contradiction.”   The policy held that LGBQ service members impaired combat capability. But many gay service members had critical skills that were needed in wartime.  An example is the case of the Arabic linguists who were discharged under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2004.  In other cases, commanders defied the policy by refusing to discharge openly gay service members who were needed for the war effort.

Parco and Levy note an “absence of evidence” that openly gay service hurt the military, and cite a study that found that gays enhanced military capability.  “But when put to the test, known gays not only didn’t harm military capability, they enhanced it when the nation needed its servants’ expertise most when it came to fighting its wars,” they write.

“The Heroism Contradiction.”  Many in the study were heroes, having earned decorations and medals, and had joined the military for patriotic reasons.  However, the message under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” was “very clear: ‘If you are gay, you cannot be a hero, even if you were, and if we find out about it, we will throw you out of our ranks,’” the authors write.

“The control contradiction.” Military leaders had argued that their ability to control behavior would be hurt by gays serving openly, but that ability to control also led to the success of “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal.  “[Repeal] happened without issue because of the tremendous control military leaders have over personnel, gay and straight, who tend to behave anyway,” the authors write.

“The Silence Contradiction.”  The policy persisted because it took voices away from everyone.  “DADT didn’t work, and yet, it continued to perpetrate a self-sustaining illusion for nearly two decades by suppressing the very voices that could invalidate it from within,” the authors write.

These contradictions helped drive the evolution of military culture, the authors write.  Over the years of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” military culture shifted towards more acceptance, but some senior leaders “continued to rally behind the rhetoric” of the policy.  With repeal, the culture continued to change. “Military leaders declared how things were to be done in accordance with society’s mandates, and that is precisely what happened,” Parco and Levy write.

Parco and Levy are also editors of a forthcoming special issue of the “Journal of Homosexuality,” dedicated to exploring the history, culture, impacts, and attitudes towards the policy.   A version of the journal issue will be published by Routledge as a book in 2013.

Here is a link to the table of contents of the journal: http://www.dodpolicy.org/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_DADT/Overview.html

Here is a link to the forthcoming book: http://www.taylorandfrancis.com/books/details/9780415816038/

Parco has published extensively in psychology and economics in his work on game theory and human decision behavior, and has co-authored three books. He is currently studying religious fundamentalism in the military.