Last edited: February 14, 2005

Uniform Discrimination: The "Donít Ask, Donít Tell" Policy of the U.S. Military

Human Rights Watch, January 28, 2003
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299

Dear Colleague:

I am attaching a copy of our report Uniform Discrimination: The "Donít Ask, Donít Tell" Policy of the U.S. Military which can also be found on our website at: The report describes the history, nature, and impact of the militaryís current policy toward gays and lesbians. We conclude that the "donít ask, donít tell" policy is based on outdated prejudices, violates fundamental human rights, and has not been shown to further the U.S. militaryís effectiveness. Indeed, the policy is counterproductive: it denies the country the service of skilled, trained, and dedicated servicemembers.

Despite the stated intention of the policy to allow gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers to remain in the military, discharges have steadily increased since the policyís adoption. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), from 1994 through the end of 2001, more than 7,800 men and women were discharged from the military because of their actual or perceived homosexuality. In 2001 alone, a record 1,256 were discharged, a figure nearly double the homosexual separation rate of 730 in 1992, prior to the institution of the "donít ask, donít tell" policy.

In practice, the "donít ask, donít tell" policy perpetuates anti-gay harassment by creating a separate, less-than-equal class of servicemembers vulnerable to abuse. Because of the policy, servicemembers endure anti-gay threats or physical attacks in silence for fear that reporting them will lead to disclosure of their sexual orientation and hence a discharge under the policy.

The Department of Defense has itself documented the hostile environment for gay and lesbian servicemembers that has thrived under the "donít ask, donít tell" policy. In March 2000, the Defense Department published a study showing that eighty percent of servicemembers surveyed randomly had heard offensive speech, derogatory names, jokes, or negative remarks about gay men or lesbians during the previous year. Eighty-five percent believed such comments were tolerated to some extent. Thirty-seven percent reported they had witnessed or experienced an incident they considered to be anti-gay harassment.

The Pentagon has done little to protect gay and lesbian servicemembers from hostile treatment or violence by other servicemembers. In response to its own surveyís findings and high-profile violent attacks against servicemembers perceived to be gay, the Pentagon announced in July 2000 an Action Plan to combat anti-gay harassment. Yet, two-and-a-half years later, the plan has not been implemented. As it is, anti-gay harassment of servicemembers is committed with near total impunity, as are violations of the military rules against unauthorized or unduly intrusive investigations into a servicememberís sexual orientation.

Supporters of "donít ask, donít tell" argue that permitting acknowledged gays or lesbians to serve in the military would impair unit cohesion and hence military effectiveness. There is no evidence to support that argument. Over the last decade, a number of U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Israel, have changed exclusionary policies and accepted gay men and lesbians into their armed forces without impairing the effectiveness of their military. Today, most NATO countries permit gay men and lesbians to serve on the same terms as heterosexuals.

In separate letters to President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Human Rights Watch called on the administration to: propose and pursue the repeal of 10 USC 654, the "donít ask, donít tell" policy codified in 1993; implement the Department of Defenseís Anti-Harassment Action Plan to address anti-gay harassment; order each service branch to suspend indefinitely all investigations and discharges under the policy, consult with allies about how they integrated their armed forces to assist the U.S. military in implementing a new policy of non-discrimination in the most efficient manner; and repeal the sodomy provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

We hope that you find this report of interest. If you have any questions about its content or our advocacy plans on this issue, please contact Wendy Patten, U.S. Advocacy Director, at 202-612-4321.


Jamie Fellner, Esq.
Director, U.S. Program

[Home] [News] [US Military]