In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Politics of Dancing: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the Role of Moral Claims
  • Beth Bailey (bio)

Moral beliefs were at the heart of American debates about gays in the military and the policy labeled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; they shaped or shadowed virtually every public exchange on the topic. Nonetheless, the language of morality only rarely appeared. It’s there, of course, popping up when politicians and military officers got thrown off their prepared remarks, appearing fairly frequently in letters to the editor or online “comments” on official stories (the joy of the Internet in writing recent history!) and on websites created by organizations of the religious right. But the always-useful-to-imagine visitor from another planet, trying to make sense of the millions of words and dollars and hours spent crafting policy about gays in the military, might well come away believing that the “moral” claims were a side issue, little more than a footnote to a debate about the nature of the U.S. military in the post–Cold War era. She/he/it would be wrong.

Policy discussions about gays in the military centered on questions of military efficacy rather than on the morally charged issue of sexual behavior. That was due in large part to the tactical decisions of conservative leaders. As the conservative movement strengthened and consolidated in the last decade of the twentieth century and beyond, social conservatives approached the issue of gays in the military with increasing political sophistication. While outspoken members of the religious right might rail against the sin of homosexuality and, not incidentally, use the threat of gays serving openly in the U.S. military to raise funds and to mobilize the faithful against Democratic [End Page 89] administrations, high-ranking military and political leaders—with significant stumbles—publicly avoided the language of morality. Moral issues remained paramount. The Pentagon was rife with prayer breakfasts and Bible studies on the topic of homosexuality, and the major policy working groups on the topic took the immorality of homosexuality—along with what many participants saw as its “ick”-factor—as a given. 1 However, by publicly subordinating religious condemnations of homosexuality to discussions of military efficacy and unit cohesion, these conservative policymakers hoped to reach beyond their natural constituency, appealing to Americans who worried more about security and military strength than about religious sexual prohibitions, and so creating the possibility of political bipartisanship and legislative supermajorities.

Social liberals and other opponents of the compromise that yielded the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, the origins of which I will describe in detail, relied initially on a moral language that echoed the civil rights struggles of previous decades. The issue was equality before the law; the movement for gay rights represented yet another step in the national struggle against the twinned evils of prejudice and discrimination. But Colin Powell, the highest-ranking African American military officer in the land, rejected the analogy with race. Most of those who accepted the analogy of racial struggles were already believers; opponents (with some coaching) tended to see the civil rights argument as selfish claims of individual rights posed against collective security and ideals of service. It might have been different were this not a contest over military policy, but the American public and its courts and elected leaders had a long history of treating the U.S. military as an exceptional institution, one whose mission transcended not only portions of civilian law but also some deeply felt American ideals. The conservative focus on military efficacy seemed a stroke of genius.

The tactics conservatives adopted in the early 1990s, however, would eventually destroy the policy they embraced. Key conservative players in these policy debates traded in moral absolutes for public attitudes, which are notoriously changeable; they traded in biblical authority (faith-based, and so unverifiable) for a testable proposition about unit cohesion. The fundamental reason homosexuals must be banned from the military, they argued, was because a majority of Americans, including young servicemen and women, believed that homosexuality was wrong. Openly gay service members would make their heterosexual peers uncomfortable; their presence would destroy trust among members of a team...