Battling the Military Ban 

In a bracing new account, historian Nathaniel Frank shows how “don’t ask, don’t tell” has utterly failed. 



In July 1993, when President Bill Clinton unveiled his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in a speech at Washington D.C.’s National Defense University, Nathaniel Frank was in a tent in Wyoming. He’d graduated from Northwestern University that spring and was spending the summer road-tripping through the West in his parents’ minivan, camping by night, and current events weren’t at the top of his mind. He was also still wrestling with his sexual orientation. As the speech ended months of speculation about whether Clinton would end the military’s ban on gay soldiers, Frank was blissfully unaware.

That would soon change. As Frank started to come out, personally experiencing the same act of self-disclosure that could cost a soldier his job under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he became fascinated with the policy’s politics of knowledge. “We all know it’s tough to express yourself in a homophobic society, and here comes a law that bans it and punishes us for telling the truth,” says the 38-year-old Frank. “All serious people admitted that there were gays in the military. Why couldn’t we say it?”

It’s this question that animates his new book, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, released by St. Martin’s Press in March, just over 15 years after “don’t ask, don’t tell” went into effect. In it, Frank, a senior research fellow at the Palm Center, a think tank based at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shows how the policy was destined to fail from the outset, since it was created out of prejudice, not cause. Although he pays heed to other factors, such as the gamesmanship of players like then–Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (whom Clinton passed over for Defense secretary), Frank persuasively argues that military leaders were acutely afraid that open service by gays would tarnish their masculine ideals. And because of that fear, they battled to silence the voices of a minority.

Tags: Politics