'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Means . . . the Closet

ELLEN GOODMAN

July 13, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- Let me begin with the obvious: It won't work.

I am not being clairvoyant about the compromise over gays in the military that is being hatched for a Thursday due date. But I can say that any variation on the current theme entitled ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'' won't work.

It won't resolve the legal questions. Sooner or later someone will ask, someone will tell, someone will be discharged and someone will be back in court.

It won't resolve the political questions either. Sooner or later, a compromise intended to satisfy the ambivalent majority -- Americans who don't want to discriminate against gays and don't want to accept them -- will fall apart from the weight of its own contradictions.

And it certainly won't resolve the conflict between the military leaders and the gay community.

When you get right down to it, ''Don't ask, Don't tell,'' is not really about ending the witch hunt. Nor is it really a gentleman's agreement not to talk about sexuality. Don't ask, don't tell, means don't talk . . . or else.

It means the closet.

The military no longer claims that gays and lesbians are a security risk. They no longer claim that homosexuals can't serve ably, even heroically. The last ditch effort to say that homosexuality is ''incompatible with military service'' will fail because, as Rep. Barney Frank says, it's ''incompatible with the truth.''

In these months of a long and often unwelcome debate, the Pentagon has finally come down to arguing one thing: that the discomfort, the fear, even the hatred of gays is itself disruptive to bonding and morale. So disruptive that gays cannot serve -- and here is the crucial word -- ''openly.''

Now, openness means different things to different people. There is a lot of room between being in the closet and being in your face. There's a scale of behavior that runs from repression to flamboyance.

But gays have always been able to serve and succeed in the military, and everywhere else in society, as long as they were not ''open.'' What differentiates the gay-rights movement even now from that of blacks or women, is that homosexuals aren't discriminated against as long as they ''pass.''

For that reason, the primary symbol of gay repression hasn't been a ghetto or a list of segregation laws. It's been the much more psychologically complex image of the closet: the dark place where cultural hate meets, and makes, self-hate.

The closet may have claimed more gay lives in America than hate crimes. It has surely devastated more psyches, through hiding and lying, than dishonorable discharges.

Because of the closet, the gay-rights movement has not just been about breaking the barriers. It's been about breaking silence. For a generation, the most important gay march has been a long line of men and women coming out, one at a time.

Some of these decisions have meant quiet and private talks with parents. Some have meant public and ostentatious pronouncements of a ''Queer Nation.'' At times, as a gay comedian put it, ''The love that dared not speak its name, can't seem to shut up.''

This conversation about single-sex love, lovers and partners has, to put it mildly, made millions of Americans uneasy. But it has also made millions of Americans more comfortable with gayness. Each and every survey says that straight Americans who know homosexuals personally, as family members and friends, are more accepting than those who don't ''know'' any. In that sense, gays and lesbians become change agents simply by making themselves ''known.''

We've seen that, too, in the argument over the military. The soldiers coming out, with Purple Hearts and military bearing, are the ones who proved that homosexuality and heroism can go together. It's the closet that's incompatible . . . with self-acceptance and public acceptance. And with change.

The compromise being worked out now will, at best, balance precariously on the threshold of the closet door.

''Don't ask'' offers a step forward for gays in the military. But ''Don't tell'' threatens a step backward in the overall direction of the gay movement.

Fused together, this may be the most we can expect from an anxious Congress, an angry Pentagon, a nervous president and an ambivalent public.

A pretty good rule in politics is to take what you can get. But take this one with a caveat. In the long run, in the medium run, and maybe even the short run: It won't work.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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