The War at Home

Michelangelo Signorile weighs in on 'Don't ask, don't tell.'



As a reporter listening to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen speak in support of ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, I couldn’t help but have a sense of déjà vu—back to 1991. Then, as now, there was palpable optimism surrounding a ­Defense secretary’s sentiments. Dick Cheney, who served in the position under President George H.W. Bush, was only tepidly defending the Pentagon policy barring gays from serving in the military when ABC News’s Sam Donaldson asked Cheney about Pete Williams. Cheney’s assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Williams was soon to be outed in a cover story I wrote for this magazine.

“Mr. Secretary,” Donaldson began during the 1991 interview, “a national newspaper about homosexuals, The Advocate, is publishing a story this week saying that a high-level Defense Department official, a member of your staff, is a homosexual. Does that give you a problem, particularly in terms of the regulations which separate members of the uniformed services if they are homosexual?”

Cheney replied by insisting that he would not ask Williams to resign. He stated three times that the policy, which applied only to uniformed service personnel, was simply one that he had “inherited” in his tenure. It was often applied unfairly, he said, though there was no plan to change it. Just days before, testifying before the House Budget Committee and knowing that the story was coming out, Cheney called the policy “a bit of an old chestnut.”

This was a real shift, the most that we’d had seen on the issue to date, and it was certainly promising coming from a Republican administration not known for being friendly to gays. Within a year Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, speaking at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles and refer­ring to the hypocrisy of a gay “Pentagon official,” promised to overturn the ban on gays if elected.

After Clinton’s election many of us thought the ban would be history in short order. But soon after he took office, what did we get? A review—spearheaded by members of Congress—and one that focused on lurid issues, like soldiers sleeping in close quarters. It was red meat for a sensationalist media, and it ultimately ate away at public opinion on the issues, leading in 1993 to the current DADT law, which Clinton described as an “honorable compromise.”