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Turning 'Unfriendly Fire' On U.S. Military's Gay Ban

Intended as a productive if imperfect compromise, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has resulted in thousands of discharges — many of them involving service members with critical skills. Historian Nathaniel Frank says it's time the ban was ended.


Other segments from the episode on June 16, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 16, 2009: Interview with Nathaniel Frank; Interview with Alex Nicholson.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Turning 'Unfriendly Fire' On U.S. Military's Gay Ban


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. During Barack Obama’s presidential
campaign, he said that he would work to overturn the Don’t Ask, Don’t
Tell policy on gays in the military. But gays in the military, gay-
rights activists and other opponents of this policy are disappointed
that all President Obama has done so far is to ask the Pentagon to
assess the policy. Don’t ask, Don’t Tell limits the rights of the
military to ask about sexual orientation, and it allows a gay person to
serve, as long as that person doesn’t disclose he or she is gay or
engage in homosexual conduct.

Tonight, many public TV stations will show the documentary “Ask Not” as
part of the series Independent Lens. It explores the effects of Don’t
Ask, Don’t Tell on gay service-members and on the military. A little
later, we’ll meet one of the people profiled in the film, Alex
Nicholson, a former Army human intelligence collector and translator who
was discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Our first guest, Nathaniel Frank, is the author of “Unfriendly Fire,” a
history and analysis of policies on gays in the military. He’s a senior
research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California,
Santa Barbara, which does research on the areas of gender, sexuality and
the military.

Nathaniel Frank, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about Don’t Ask,
Don’t Tell, let’s go back in time a little bit. You write that in
America, men have drummed out of the military ever since the
Revolutionary War, but when was that actually codified by the military?

Mr. NATHANIEL FRANK (Author, “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban
Undermines the Military and Weakens America”): Well, it wasn’t mentioned
really under World War I. Before that, people were drummed out of the
military, as you say, basically over euphemisms like unnatural carnal
copulation. You didn’t mention homosexuality or sodomy until about World
War I, when they re-codified the regulations that governed this. And it
wasn’t until World War II that people really began talking about a
homosexual identity as part of the psychiatric community, trying to
screen through people and in some ways to help them to be cured.

And then in the 1980s, there was a service-wide ban on homosexuals, and
so it really crept through the 20th century, until we got to what is now
the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

GROSS: Let’s go back to World War II for a moment. Was it during or
after World War II that gay people were screened out before they could
even get into the military?

Mr. FRANK: It was during World War II that gay people started getting
screened out of the military based on what we know now as a homosexual
identity. Before that, really regulations governed sodomy. That is, they
governed the behavior. And they would kick people out for sodomy for gay
or straight behavior. It included oral sex, too, and so it wasn’t
something that just focused on gay people or gay identity. And it was
during World War II when, because of the psychiatric community largely,
people began to view homosexuals as a consistent identity and that they
were screened during that war and after and when new notions began to
emerge that homosexual people were somehow a threat to military

GROSS: So how were gays screened out during their recruitment and
enlistment process?

Mr. FRANK: Well, because it was so difficult, in fact, to tell the
difference between gay people and straight people, military and
psychiatric screeners had to go out of their way to kind of create
stereotypes about gays being effeminate, having sloped soldiers, being
weak. And because of the stereotypes that they created, they came to
believe what was really a creation of their own making. And so there
were so many people that had to be screened through during the
mobilization for World War II that there was scarcely time to really go
into depth about what would constitute a homosexual.

But more important, there were no real differences in the way people,
you know, acted and behaved. And so people relied on these notions that
are still lingering and persisting today but really have no bearing on
whether someone is homosexual or not. And so these stereotypes have
lived on, and really some of them came out of the World War II era.

GROSS: So let’s jump ahead to candidate Bill Clinton, when Bill Clinton
was running for the presidency and he said during his campaign that he
wanted to eliminate the ban on gays in the military. Why did that become

a campaign issue for him?

Mr. FRANK: Well, Bill Clinton was really one of the first presidential
candidates to court the gay vote. He also had gay friends. He had gay
aides and colleagues, and he was genuinely more comfortable around gays
and lesbians than people before him.

He also thought that lifting the ban would be easy, and in a sense, it
would have been easy. It could have been easy if he had gone ahead and
lifted the ban by executive order. He eventually got cowed into
hesitating about that, but he thought it would be as easy as lifting the
ban with the stroke of a pen. And he spoke to some gay aides and gay
friends, and he said, what do I need in order to reach out to the gay
community? And some of them said, well, you have to lift the ban on gays
in the military. And he said, rather glibly: done, what else? He really
underestimated the extent of the resistance that he would encounter.

GROSS: Now, President Truman used an executive order to integrate the
military. So he didn’t go to Congress. Why did President Clinton feel
that he was unable to allow gays in the military through executive

Mr. FRANK: Well, it’s true. Truman did de-segregate the military with an
executive order. Clinton didn’t go to Congress himself. It was Congress
under Sam Nunn, who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee,
a very powerful ally of the military, a senator from Georgia, who really
created among the fiercest resistance to Clinton’s promise to lift this
by executive order. And he began to threaten that he would write the gay
ban into law as a matter of federal legislation. That was going to
become the first time that the gay ban was governed by federal law
because up until that point, it had just been a Pentagon policy.

So Clinton did initially think that he could lift this very quickly. He
didn’t choose to issue an executive order right off the bat. He thought
that he would try to reach out, and as was his tendency, to please all
parties. And it ended up that he wasn’t able to do that.

He had a long-standing kind of relationship with the military of unease
and tension because of his reputation as a draft-dodger, so that while
he had avoided service, he perhaps out of guilt, really had a sense that
military personnel were people that deserved to be looked up to and to
be respected. And so he hesitated. He reached out to the military, and
over a short period of time, he became, I think, too fearful to move
forward against their resistance.

GROSS: Why was Sam Nunn so opposed to allowing gays in the military?

Mr. FRANK: Well, Sam Nunn was a conservative Democrat, a socially
conservative person who had dismissed a couple of aides in the 1980s
because they were gay. He had said some things about homosexuals and the
family that sort of bought into the religious right rhetoric of the
time, that homosexuality was somehow abnormal, immoral and a threat to
the family. And by all accounts it seems that his personal discomfort
and intolerance of homosexuality is what played a factor here.

Now he didn’t acknowledge that. He said that he had personal feelings,
but they weren’t going to play into how he ran his hearings. But the way
he did end up running the congressional hearings that were the result of
this Clinton campaign promise, they were really stacked against openly
gay service in the military.

GROSS: Let’s get back to those hearings in a moment. I want to ask you
about how the Christian right mobilized against allowing gays in the
military, right after Bill Clinton was elected and also continued
mobilizing during the hearings that Sam Nunn held. What were the groups
that were active in this movement, and what were some of the main themes
that they hit?

Mr. FRANK: There were several groups among the religious right who
fiercely opposed the idea that gays would be allowed to serve in the
military. And as soon as Clinton was elected, they swung into action.
You know, people really had been concerned that - among this population
that Clinton represented everything that was wrong with the ‘60s, the
lax morality, the secularism, the endorsement of alternate lifestyles.

So there were groups like the Family Research Council, James Dobson, as
well as members of the military chaplaincy, who circulated letters and
petitions and swamped the White House and congressional switchboards,
beginning right when Clinton was elected and then again when he was
inaugurated in January. And they circulated papers, and in fact created
a film called “The Gay Agenda,” which took some of the most extreme
footage of gay pride parades in San Francisco, circulated it all the way
up to the top of the chain of the military, including members of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, to act as though this is what would happen to the
military if gays were allowed to serve openly. That you would literally
have gay-pride floats drifting onto military bases, you would run out
all the virtuous men and women, and you would be left with a pink

GROSS: It sounds like, left with a drag queen military is what they were
trying to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANK: Right, and it wasn’t just the religious right. People like
Senator John McCain ended up in the hearings asking about transgender
and bizarre behavior, that’s a quote, bizarre dress, these stereotypes
and these fear tactics. Some of which were genuine fears, I’m sure, and
some of which were clearly exploiting a political moment to make it seem
like letting gays serve openly and honestly in the military, which is
really all that this was about, would somehow transform the military and
transform the culture into the worst, most extreme vision of a kind of,
you know, Sodom that members of the religious right and other social
conservatives couldn’t stand by. And this was a really well-funded,
well-oiled, coordinated effort that, as I looked through these files and
these films and the letters, really surprised me when I was researching
this, just the extent of what this campaign ended up being. And I think
it’s really because of that campaign and those religious right groups
and some of the conservative lawmakers who answered to them, that’s the
reason that Clinton ultimately failed to lift the ban.

GROSS: Now you quote a newsletter from the National Association of
Evangelicals that said: How can God bestow his favor on an army or a
nation which condones that which he declares to be an abomination?

Mr. FRANK: You know, that’s a very important quote because I think, as
much as it’s easy to dismiss some of the opposition as demagoguery and,
you know, exploiting fears, that there were among many people genuine
fears that they as Christians were supposed to witness and testify
against evil and that their necks were really on the line.

Literally, their path to heaven could have a hurdle thrown in front of
it if they didn’t do what they believed to be their duty, to speak up
and speak out against what they saw as the sanctioning or endorsement of

You see it in their literature, with the old sort of 19th-century all-
caps and several exclamation points that they’re really trying to stick
out their necks and holler about this because they think that an angry
god will rise up against them if they let this happen. And I think it’s
an important and fascinating facet of the resistance. It’s not the
entire story, because there were people who simply had old-fashioned
prejudice or were catering to prejudice among constituents.

GROSS: So do you think the Christian right had its greatest effect on
President Clinton, on Sam Nunn’s Senate Committee on Intelligence, on
the military, on all of the above?

Mr. FRANK: I think, you know, it ends up being a tipping point. If the
Christian right had not been as vociferous and successful in mobilizing
to turn the tide of public opinion and to animate some of the lawmakers
who, you know, could have remained less opposed, then you may not have
gotten that tipping point where it became, in Clinton’s eyes, too
politically costly to press forward.

So public-opinion polls did register this impact. So between November,
when Clinton was elected, when public opinion polls registered about a
50-50 split about whether they supported letting gays serve, between
then and January, when Clinton took office and called for a six-month
study period, that’s when the hearings occurred, public support for gays
in the military slid from about 50 percent to a low of about 41 percent.
And that in itself I think did have an impact on Clinton’s decisions,
ultimately later that spring, to acquiesce, to stop spending political
capital and to say, enough is enough. I have a broader domestic agenda
here and I’m going to take this compromise, and I’m going to call it an
honorable compromise, which is eventually what he did to try to claim a
kind of victory.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Nathaniel Frank, and he’s
the author of the book “Unfriendly Fire,” which is a history and an
analysis on the ban on gays in the military. It’s also an analysis of
why, in his opinion, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell doesn’t work and actually
hurts the military. We’ll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Nathaniel Frank, and he’s
the author of the book “Unfriendly Fire,” which is a history and an
analysis on the ban on gays in the military. So finally, Don’t Ask,
Don’t Tell was crafted as a compromise. What exactly was the compromise?

Mr. FRANK: The compromise that became Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a
policy, and it was also written into law at around the same time, that
said the military would stop asking at recruitment whether someone was
gay or not. And in turn, people were not allowed to say whether they
were gay, which also meant they were not allowed to engage in any kind
of sexual activity, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Earlier compromises had been floated by Congressman Barney Frank, which
would have been a kind of lighter Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which would
have allowed people when they were off-base to engage in any kind of
behavior and to speak honestly about their sexual orientation. But the
policy that ended up prevailing was one that says you can’t admit that
you’re gay, and you can’t engage in any homosexual conduct.

Now the policy was expressed in such a way that people wanted us to
believe this was only regulating behavior. That was the American way.
That was consistent with Clinton’s sort of campaign philosophy that in
America, you should never be punished for who you are, if you happen to
be gay, but for how you behave. And if you were to engage in homosexual
behavior, which included speaking about it, that would still be deemed a
threat, and you could be kicked out. And so that’s the policy we have.

Again, there’s never been any evidence showing a link between saying
that you’re gay or engaging in homosexual conduct, particularly off-
base. There’s been no link established between that and unit cohesion,
effectiveness, recruitment, retention, any of the ways that people

measure the effectiveness of the military. But that was the compromise
that Clinton allowed to prevail. And then Congress, under Sam Nunn, as
part of this compromise, chose to put it into federal law for the first
time ever because before this, it had been just a Pentagon regulation.

GROSS: What is the significance of the fact that under President
Clinton, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell became law, congressionally passed law,
as opposed to just military policy?

Mr. FRANK: Well, a couple things. First of all, at a practical level,
once the gay ban, in whatever form it took, became federal law, it
became that much more difficult to get rid of. And we see that now. We
see the difficulty getting rid of the policy because Obama no longer has
the power to repeal the policy with the stroke of a pen. He could
suspend the policy, but he needs to go through Congress to fully,
permanently repeal this and get it off the books. And that makes it
tougher. That means that he faces what will probably be another battle,
though certainly not one as strenuous as what we had 16 years ago
because it’s a very different political and cultural world.

It also, in my view, the fact that this is a law is a real embarrassment
to the United States. And this is shown, I think, in the policy becoming
the butt of jokes both inside the military and on comedy shows, as well
as abroad, where Israel and Britain actually studied what America was
doing when they decided to assess whether they should lift their ban.
And they thought that this had been a disaster. And the fact that
American law actually says you can allow gays in the military, but you
have to force them to pretend they’re not gay, to actually lie or
deceive people, the fact that that is written into American law I think
is an embarrassment and that that’s the way it’s been seen by a lot of
people. And that if it were just depending on policy, it would still be
bad, but it’s that much worse by virtue of being an actual law.

GROSS: I know you’ve been following this story very closely lately. So
I’m wondering, what you think President Obama will do, if anything,
about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with the economic – you know, when he was a
candidate, he said he would try to overturn it, but with the economic
crisis, with health care and health insurance being a priority for him,
with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is hardly
at the top of his list. So do you have a sense of if and when he would
get to it?

Mr. FRANK: Well, Obama was very, very clear as a candidate not only that
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell should go but that it should go now. He said the
work to end the policy should’ve begun long ago. That work will begin
when I take office. And by most accounts, it didn’t begin when he took
office and hasn’t begun in earnest yet.

Now the White House, I think, finds itself on the defensive. He has made
it very clear that he opposes the policy. He has said he will be a
fierce advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians. And yet he’s really
remained silent about gay rights at all. And you know, we have marriage
battles brewing in several courts and in federal courts, and the first
African-American president has chosen to stay silent on what is among
the biggest civil rights battles of our time.

I think the White House made a decision early on that it didn’t want to
wade into what it saw as culture war issues. And I don’t begrudge them
for wanting to prioritize the economic crisis and national security, but
of course, this policy is an issue of national security. It’s not just a
culture war issue. It will certainly be less fierce, I think, of a
culture war issue when it comes up in earnest.

And so Obama could issue an executive order using his powers of stop-
loss, that is to stop the loss of military personnel, to say enough is
enough. We’re going to stop the bleeding. We’re going to stop
discharging service members just because they’re gay. And then he could,
a few months down the road, go to Congress and point to the reality of
openly gay service and say, look, the sky hasn’t fallen. Now let’s move
to get this off the books.

So it would be a one-two punch. It would be an executive action, and
then Congress would move to get it off the books. But for the moment, I
think Obama has been cowed into delaying on this issue instead of doing
what he said he would do as a campaign promise, which is to lift the ban
and to start that work very quickly. And I think a lot of us had
patience for a certain amount of time, but at this point he really owns
the policy. Discharges are continuing under him. And I think that in
trying to avoid Clinton’s mistakes, he’s ironically, potentially
repeating some of them by delaying. And it was during the delay in the
Clinton era that this issue really began to fester and become an issue
that derailed Clinton. I hope Obama takes the right lesson from that and
not the wrong one.

GROSS: Nathaniel Frank will be back in the second half of the show. He
is the author of “Unfriendly Fire.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with historian Nathaniel
Frank, the author of "Unfriendly Fire," a critical history of policy on
gays in the military. He's a senior research fellow at the Palm Center
at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which conducts research
on gender, sexuality and the military.

You consider Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell not only a wrong policy, but a
damaging policy. What are the ways that you think Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
has damaged our national security?

Mr. FRANK: Well there's quite a few ways. First of all, we’ve fired over
13,000 service members just because they're gay. This is a profound loss
to the military because among those 13,000 service members who've been
fired under the policy, there are over a thousand mission-critical
specialists, including hundreds of linguists and many Arabic linguists -
and we don't have enough people who speak Arabic to translate what the
people that we’re fighting, and whose hearts and minds we’re trying win,
what they're saying. And so that brain drain, that talent loss is really
something that is unaffordable. And partly as a result of that, we’re
lowering our standards.

We’re letting in more ex-convicts, felons, high school dropouts, drug
abusers, people who may deserve a second chance at some point, but are
really by definition considered less ready for military service than
gays and lesbians. So the brain drain is really the big one. But also,
what my research has found is that service members who are gay can't
access the support services that are essential to military readiness.
They can't speak openly to their chaplain, to a military doctor, a
social worker. You see that in the film "Ask Not" where people talk
about how they would've gone to a military psychiatrist to talk about
what was bothering them, or some sense of post traumatic stress
syndrome, but they don't. They can't.

They just suffer in silence or they leave early. And that's not a recipe
for unit cohesion in our military effectiveness, to take the estimated
65,000 gay and lesbian troops and to force them to serve under a special
burden that the rest of the military doesn’t have to endure. This is not
how you would create a ready force if you were doing it from the ground

GROSS: Now on a related note, you know relating to how gays in the
military can't talk to chaplains, they can't talk about their sexual
orientation to their commanders - you describe the policy as invading
the privacy of all service members. Would you explain what you mean?

Mr. FRANK: Well that's right. This policy was supposed to make sexual
orientation into a non-issue. But instead, under the policy, discharges
shot up, harassment shot up. I think part of that was because of the
political rhetoric surrounding this. And, of course, we talked about how
the religious right issued damning critiques of what it meant to be
homosexual. But what this policy does is it says to everyone: there are
gays in your midst, showering with you, sleeping with you because
they're allowed to be there now, but you're not allowed to know who’s
who. So it really cast a pall of suspicion, creating rumors and gossip
around who's gay and who's not, when what it should've done, to really
make sexual orientation a non-issue, was to issue one single standard of
conduct and behavior for all service members. And that is, in fact, what
has been shown to work in foreign militaries, like Britain and Israel.

There are a couple dozen that now let gays serve, including all of our
major allies. And they find that when you have strong signals of clear
leadership, number one, and number two, a single code of behavior for
everyone, that's what allows people to focus on teamwork, and merit, and
to know that there aren't different rules governing different people.
And so this policy, which was supposed to kind of make sexuality less
important ended up making it people's focus instead.

GROSS: What is the single code of behavior in the countries that you
referred to?

Mr. FRANK: Well it depends on which service, which country, and so
forth. But basically the idea is that it governs public displays of
affection. It governs relationship and fraternization, which is when you
have a relationship with someone of a different rank which is always
forbidden, and it applies to everyone. And it talks about respect for
individual's privacy, so some of it is rhetoric. But some of it is the
code, that's an administrative and criminal code, that says you can't
engage in certain behavior because that is deemed, whether you're gay or
straight, to be prejudicial to good order: if you're having a
relationship or having sexual relations on a ship, say, which is
deployed; or fraternization, as I mentioned from you know, one rank to
another; or overt public displays of affection, even among married

And these regulations vary according to the service, the base, the
country, and the situation. But they don’t vary according to whether
your sexual orientation is straight or gay. And that's what really
matters to making this kind of a thing work.

GROSS: Now as you bring up in your book, our troops are often fighting
in multinational forces where the soldiers from other countries include
gay people. So does that mean that in spite of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,
our men and women are fighting alongside of homosexuals?

Mr. FRANK: That's right. And we have documented evidence that it's not
just that our service members are fighting in countries where they allow
openly gay service, but where they, in fact, have openly gay service
members - that we know that our service members have been on ships, in
multinational missions oversees, you know, plenty of spots, particularly
in southern Afghanistan. We fight shoulder to shoulder with Canadians,
British, Israelis, and we know of gay soldiers and leaders in those
campaigns who are out and open. And so this is one among many facts that
really undermine the foundation of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rationale.

Another one related to that is that during wartimes, discharges for
homosexuality always go down. They're often cut in half. Throughout the
20th century, history shows this. And the reason that's significant is
because it shows that even the military doesn't believe that openly gay
service undercuts unit cohesion or effectiveness, because at wartime,
when cohesion and effectiveness are most important, the military looks
the other way. And in this last round of wars we know that discharges
have plummeted from about 1,200 a year to about 600 a year. And we also
have, and I have them in my book, many instances of people who talked to
me and said I went to my commander and I said this is the situation. I'm
being harassed for this and I needed to speak up about it. And whatever
the reason they made a statement and their commander said, get back to

GROSS: Now you're a senior research fellow at the Palm Center, which is
a think tank, or a research center, at the University of California,
Santa Barbara. And your group, the Palm Center, recently commissioned a
study on unit cohesion. What were the results that apply to Don’t Ask,
Don’t Tell?

Mr. FRANK: Well we got together, in 2008, a bipartisan commission of
retired senior military officers to look at all of the evidence that had
accumulated throughout history, but particularly since 1993. It was the,
I think, biggest study to assess this question since the RAND Study came
out in 1993. And these were people who had previously, in some cases,
been in favor of the gay ban and they took testimony from witnesses who
had been involved in policy, as well as service members who had been
affected by it, and they found once again, that sexual orientation had
no bearing on unit cohesion.

In fact, they suggested that the language of the law, which states that
open homosexuality would be an unacceptable risk to unit cohesion, was
essentially made up. There was no basis for it. There was no empirical
data. It wasn't clear where it came from. And keep in mind, one of the
officers who served on this study commission last year had been the
former chair of the military working group which wrote the military's
blueprint to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. So these weren't just outsiders they
were retired...

GROSS: Who was it?

Mr. FRANK: That was General Major Alexander, Robert Alexander, who had
initially chaired the military working group. He, they had two chairs.
He was the first chair. And he had been in favor of the Clinton ban.
Fifteen years later, he said this was supposed to be a temporary policy,
a kind of useful speed bump that would allow people to get used to the -
what everyone really already knew, which was that there have always been
gay people serving alongside of you. But he said 15 years is too damn
long and that it was time to get rid of the policy. Because once we had
had the time - as temperatures cooled over the last 15 years, and as
acceptance of homosexuality has grown both in civilian and military
culture - once we’ve had the time to look at the research and to assess
this, people have begun to realize this has been based on nothing. It's
just been a continuation of these old prejudices and assumptions that
somehow homosexuality was a menace...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANK: ... to civilized society and would therefore be a threat to
the armed forces. But it wasn't rooted in any fact at any point.

GROSS: Although President Obama has expressed his opposition to Don’t
Ask, Don’t Tell and his interest in overturning it, he hasn't made any
moves in that direction yet. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear
a case challenging Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Do you think that there are
legal challenges in the works that might overturn either the military
policy or the congressionally passed law?

Mr. FRANK: There are court cases in the works that could overturn the
policy. I don't think that it should or will likely play out in the
courts. I think that Obama has the power of executive order and that
Congress should look at this as well and say this isn't working. The
courts have a long tradition of deferring to the military and to
Congress in matters of national security. I think that's often
unfortunate and that they should, in fact, strike down this policy as
unconstitutional, but I don't think it's likely any time soon.

GROSS: Nathaniel, how did gays in the military become your issue? Have
you ever been in the military?

Mr. FRANK: No. My father and grandfather were Army officers. But for me,
this was a question of what it meant to me in the 1990s, when I was
graduating college and studying to be a historian, what it meant that
our country was instituting a law that really institutionalized the
closet, that required people to deceive and lie - when, as a historian,
I was training to tell the truth. And that kind of disconnect inspired
me to start writing about this on the 50th anniversary of President
Truman's executive order desegregating the military. And I've been
writing about it ever since.

GROSS: Well Nathaniel Frank, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FRANK: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Nathaniel Frank is the author of "Unfriendly Fire." You can read

an excerpt on our website,

Coming up, we talk with Alex Nicholson, an Army translator who was
discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell after 9/11. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Alex Nicholson: Talking About 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell’


Being gay in the Army under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was more difficult
than Alex Nicholson expected. He was discharged under the policy about
six months after 9/11 after serving for one year, even though his skills
as a human intelligence collector and translator of several languages,
including Arabic, were sorely needed. Nicholson is one of the people
profiled in the new documentary about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell called, "Ask
Not." It will be shown on many public TV stations tonight as part of the
series, "Independent Lens." Nicholson is now the executive director of
the group Servicemembers United, an advocacy organization for issues
affecting gay and lesbian troops and veterans.

Alex Nicholson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us the story of when and why
you were discharged?

Mr. ALEX NICHOLSON (Executive director, Servicemembers United): Well I
had enlisted in the Army in 2001 as a human intelligence collector, and
for the most part I was abiding by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. You know Don’t
Ask, Don’t Tell sounds so simple. It sounds like you just you know,
don't tell anybody you're gay and nobody will ask you you're gay and
you'll get along fine. And for a while that's exactly what was going on.
But a couple of people happened to find out that I was gay, which was no
big deal. We had no problems whatsoever.

About a year into my service, a co-worker in my unit, who had found out
that I was gay, just decided to use that information against me for
spite at that particular time and outed me within the unit. And that
sort of led to a chain reaction of events that forced the command to
discharge me early because I had been outed.

GROSS: Did the commander who discharged you already know you were gay
before you were officially outed?

Mr. NICHOLSON: No, the command didn't know at all. Very few people knew.
The command was sort of forced to - over the objections of some in the
command, just because of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law - was forced to
get rid of a multilingual human intelligence collector just six months
after 9/11.

GROSS: So when you were in the military and gay, but trying to stay in
the closet so that you could stay in the military, what was your
understanding of what you had to do? I mean, obviously, no one was
supposed to know you were gay. So did that mean, like, you didn't tell
absolutely anybody?

Mr. NICHOLSON: You know that's a really good question because even now I
have a hard time, like, looking back and trying to think of what I must
have thought about this policy when I was, you know, 19-years-old at the
time. But, I mean yes, for the most part I just sort of keep my private
life private. And to be honest, we were just so busy at the time that,
you know, I didn't really have time to, you know, have any sort of a gay
life. I didn't really have to, you know, date. I really didn't have time
to do much other than just work, work, work. And so it didn't really
come up. I mean it came up a few times, you know, in some social
settings, people would ask, you know, do you have a girlfriend, you
know, do you have a wife, do you, you know, do you have an ex-

GROSS: So this - did this put in a position of having to lie?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Oh, it put me in a position of having to lie all the

GROSS: What kind of lies did you have to tell?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Well, people ask all the time, just sort of very
naturally when you're, you know, when you're in the military or when
you're working in any job, you know, just what you're doing this
weekend, you know, do you, you know, have a girlfriend? And you know,
sort of especially when you're closely with people and, you know, you’re
mixed with males and females, and then, you know, you’re sort of living
in close quarters, things will come up, you know, like so and so is
interested in you, so and so, you know, these two are dating, you know,
why aren't you dating? Having to switch partners all the time, having to
makeup ex-girlfriends, having to make up current girlfriends at times,
like at boot camp…

GROSS: Well, that’s what I was wondering. Did you make up a whole back
story for yourself, like a life that you didn't live so you’d have a
story to tell?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Yeah, you know, I wouldn't say that I made up a whole
back story, I mean - but you just sort of respond instinctively, you
know, sometimes - and I'm sure over the, you know, over the whole course
of the time I was in the military I must have contradicted myself many
times. But you know, you're just asked sort of, you know, do you have a
girlfriend, and you sort of, you know, automatically might respond, yes,
of course. I mean, you know, (unintelligible)…

GROSS: Okay, but then I would say tell me about her. And then what you

Mr. NICHOLSON: Then it's just sort of a matter of ad-libbing. I mean you
just sort of make it up on the spot. I mean you obviously try, you know,
at times you try to play it down, you try to change the subject,
sometimes you try to, you know, transition out of having to describe
more. But I mean, it's just sort of an ad hoc thing. You just sort of
make it up as you go along and you hope that your face is not giving you
away, you hope that you're not contradicting yourself.

You hope that they're buying it. I mean it’s a constant state of fear
that you're going to get caught, that you're going to, you know, your
lines are going to get mixed up, that nobody is going to believe them.
You know, I sort of describe Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell a lot of times as a
cloud of fear hanging over your head the entire time you're in the
military that you'll get found out.

GROSS: So you were out when you joined the military?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Yes, I was. I was completely out, I was completely
comfortable. I actually went back into the closet in order to go into
the Army. I had…

GROSS: Why were you willing to do that?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Going into the Army and serving in the military is
something that I had always wanted to do. It's something that was very
natural for young males in my family to do. My father was career
military. I had always grown up around the military. It was just
something - it was a lifestyle and a career move. It was just something
that I was really comfortable with and liked a lot. I had an affinity
for the military lifestyle. But you know, like I keep stressing, I just
didn't think it would be a problem whatsoever. And obviously, you know,
as a young kid going into the military, I didn't realize and didn't
think about and had no way of knowing about all of the many nuanced
manifestations of the policy that you encounter.

GROSS: You know, some of the people who support Don't Ask, Don't Tell
and who think it would be bad for the troops to have gays and lesbians
serving in the military, here's one of the things they say. If there's a
gay man in the service, he's going to be ogling all the other men and
that's going to make them self-conscious. And what's it going to like in
the showers when he sees all these other naked men? And he's going to be
surrounded by temptation, so it will be hard for the gay servicemen as
well. What's your answer to all of that?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Yeah, you know, first of all, I would say that that
scenario was pretty rare. It just didn’t happen that often. You're just,
you know, I mean it’s - I think the mental image of the group showers
and the extreme lack of privacy is sort of based in a, you know, sort of
a Hollywood-type image of the set-up of military facilities and training
facilities. You know, I mean the shower stalls are individualized.
They’re segmented and they're separated by walls, you know, for the most
part. It’s rare to find a group shower in a military facility these
days. So the scenario there that you described and that is often used as
sort of a scenario to point to is extremely rare.

Second of all, I would say that when you're training, especially, which
is when you would really have the most opportunity to be in that
scenario, you're just so incredibly busy, and so preoccupied with so
many other things that you don’t even have time for anything like that.
I mean, and you know, that sort of leads into the third point I would
make about that, that it's just those fears are just based on such
outdated and flat-out ignorant stereotypes of gay men. Mostly I mean
it’s - you know, they sort of categorically put in lesbians there as
well. But I mean the real problem people have and the real fear when
they talk about the shower issue is they're really talking about gay
men, I believe.

And also I would say that, you know, they're already there, we're
already there. Gay men, gay women, bisexual men, bisexual women, are
already in the military. They’re already serving. They're already - even
the few instances where there are group showers or, you know, in
situations with intimate enforced(ph) privacy in the barracks, where you
have to live, you know, multiple people to the same room or bay, gays
and lesbians are already there. And so they're already in these
situations, and they are already - if the temptations existed, they
already have them, and these problems that are hypothesized that will
happen or not showing up.

GROSS: My guest is the former army translator Alex Nicholson. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Alex Nicholson - a former Army human intelligence
collector and translator of several languages, including Arabic, who was
discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell six months after 9/11.

Were there parts of the military support system that you couldn’t use
because using them in a way that you would have needed to use them would
have required outing yourself, like talking to the military chaplain,
talking to the military psychologist, talking honestly with a military

Mr. NICHOLSON: Oh, absolutely. I mean it’s just understood that anybody
who finds out you're gay in the military could potentially out you and
have you discharged. And so that carries over to, you know, chaplains,
it carries over to military psychologists, military psychiatrists,
regular medical doctors.

GROSS: What kind of conversations would you have wanted to have with
people in positions like that that you couldn’t?

Mr. NICHOLSON: I think especially around the time, you know, I mean it
was a really rough and stressful and just hellish time around the time I
was outed and sort of dealing with that and trying to contain it, and
you know, just not knowing what was going to happen. And I mean I would
have loved – you know, I went through really bad depression when that
happened too, and I mean I was just so fearful of what was going to
happen to me and, you know, if my parents were going to find out, if,
you know, I was going to be kicked out, what was going to - you know, I
mean, it was just a really tough time that I really could have used just
any kind of support whatsoever. I just had to deal with every last bit
of it, every minute of it on my own.

GROSS: So did your parents not know that you were gay until you’re outed
by the military?

Mr. NICHOLSON: You know, I think our moms always know. But for the most
part, no, they didn’t. And, you know, I’m a third generation of the same
name and so my dad and I have the same name, and my home of record
address obviously was my parents address. And my dad, like I mentioned,
had been in the military also his entire life. And so when my discharge
papers came, being addressed to me, my dad obviously assumed that
anything coming from the military to that address must be for him. And
so he opened it up and saw homosexual admission on my discharge paper
work. And that’s how my dad found out I was gay.

GROSS: If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was overturned, would you want to go
back into the military?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Oh, absolutely. I love the military so much. I love the
lifestyle. I love the people. I love the discipline. I love the mission.
I love the sense of community and sense of purpose. It’s something I -
you know, the military is something I grew up around. It’s something I
know very well and I feel very comfortable in that environment. And I
mean I love it. I would go back in a heartbeat. I mean, I may not, you
know, be able to go back and do the exact same thing I was doing when I
was 19 years old. But you know, I just finished my course work on a PhD
now so I’d be at a different level.

But I mean going back in the military is something I would do in
heartbeat if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. And actually - I mean
I’m very hopeful that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will be, you know,
overturned in the next year or two or three at the latest and that I
still will be able to go back into the military. I’m young enough that
I’m still otherwise eligible. So I really hope that that can be a

GROSS: Well, Alex Nicholson, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. NICHOLSON: It’s been a real pleasure, Terry. I’m really honored to
be on your show and thanks for having me.

GROSS: Alex Nicholson is a former Army human intelligence collector and
translator who was discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell after 9/11. He
is one of the people profiled in the new documentary “Ask Not,” which
will be shown tonight on many public TV stations. We called the Pentagon
and asked for an interview or comment about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We're
given this statement from Cynthia O. Smith, a Department of Defense

Quote: “The secretary and the chairman have begun a dialogue on this
with the president. President Obama has been clear in his direction to
Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen that he is committed to repeal the
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. He also has been clear that he’s committed
to do it in a way that is least disruptive to our troops, especially
given that they have been simultaneously waging two wars for six years
now. Although this will require changes to the law, the secretary and
chairman are working to address the challenges associated with
implementation of the president’s commitment. This law requires the
Department of Defense to separate from the Armed Forces members who
engage in or attempt to engage in homosexual acts, state they are
homosexual or bisexual, or marry or attempt to marry a person of the
same biological sex. The law establishes the basis for separation from
the Armed Forces as conduct, not orientation. Our policy reflects the
law, i.e., no military member is discharged solely due to his or her
sexual orientation. The separated members have the opportunity to
continue to serve their nation and national security by putting their
abilities to use by way of civilian employment with other federal
agencies, the Department of Defense, or in the private sector such as
with a government contractor,” unquote.

(Soundbite of music)

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,,
where you can also see a couple of clips from “Ask Not.”
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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