Is ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Ethical?


Q – Is "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" Ethical?

A. Since you’re asking, I’ll tell: "Don’t Ask,, Don’t Tell" is unethical.

At the time it was instituted, President Clinton’s "See No Evil" formula, based, somewhat surprisingly, on an article from an Orthodox Jewish publication, was a step forward in reducing discrimination, even if it did evoke memories of the immortal Sgt. Schultz.

But times have changed.

As ethicist John Marshall explains on his insightful blog, Ethics Alarms, "The law treats gay Americans in a biased and discriminatory manner, reinforcing negative stereotypes and the irrational fears. It also hurts the military and the nation by robbing it of able soldiers and military personnel."

Compounding the problem, a recent survey sent to military families to assess attitudes toward gays only reinforces those negative stereotypes, posing leading questions like, "If a wartime situation made it necessary for you to share bathroom facilities with an open bay shower with someone you believe to be a gay or lesbian service member, which are you most likely to do?"

Imagine a similar survey regarding whether a soldier would leave his wallet on the nightstand if the guy on the next cot were a Jew.

I’m all for keeping one’s bedroom behavior private, especially in this age of TMI. But sexual orientation is less about bedroom behavior than identity formation, and the evidence clearly points to it not being a choice. That has become even more evident in the years since Clinton’s policy was enacted.

An interesting Talmudic conversation centers on the Torah’s injunction that conscientious objectors are exempt from fighting in a discretionary war (as opposed to a war of survival). Some rabbis expanded this include anyone burdened by sin. But since every person sins, this ruling, taken to its logical extreme, would exempt us all from fighting. What if they gave a war and nobody came? Now, I don’t believe that homosexuality is a sin, but, by this logic, even those who do should be able to see how "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" has earned its dishonorable discharge. Why should a convicted felon be allowed to serve publicly, and not an "outed" homosexual?

Maybe it’s time for the military to keep all forms of sexual expression out of the barracks. We can start with those demeaning pin up posters that objectify women. Of course war is all about objectifying the Other. That’s understandable with regard to the enemy (though ethically questionable) – it is much easier to kill him that way. But why dehumanize our friends too? In Israel, the army is the great unifier, the place where social barriers come down, where women and men, Jew and non-Jew, Orthodox and secular, gay and straight, all serve together. In Israel, the gay issue is no big deal. And I can see why. Personally, if I’m going to be in the line of fire next to someone, confronting together our deepest fears, it would be terribly burdensome to live a lie. Life becomes transparent in a foxhole.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
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