"Don't ask, don't tell" and the future of sexual morality.

"Don't ask, don't tell" and the future of sexual morality.

"Don't ask, don't tell" and the future of sexual morality.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 20 2010 8:01 AM

Patriot Gays

"Don't ask, don't tell" and the future of sexual morality.

Former Air Force Maj. Mike Almy. Click image to expand.
Former Air Force Maj. Mike Almy

"Don't ask, don't tell" is history. The House and Senate votes to repeal it, backed by President Obama's promised signature, are a cultural milestone. But where is this revolution going? Are we abandoning moral judgments about sex, or just rethinking them?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

To social conservatives, DADT's demise is a collapse of values. It's an abandonment of "character," an attempt at "reshaping social attitudes regarding human sexuality" that would "destroy the military's moral backbon e."  A focus group participant sums up their fear: "People view the military as the last bastion of morals and what is good. If we break that down here … What's left?" The initial worry of these groups, bolstered by the military's report on repealing DADT, is that straight, unmarried personnel will demand the same partner benefits accorded to gays.

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Conservatives tend to exaggerate the slippery slope from homosexuality to anything-goes. But many of the arguments for repealing DADT, coupled with ongoing efforts to reform military sex laws, do point in that direction. During the Senate debate, Majority Leader Harry Reid and his colleagues repeatedly argued that the military shouldn't care "who you love." They called that question a matter of "personal liberty." Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, told her colleagues that after repealing DADT, "there is more work we have to do on this whole issue. There is still a lot of unfairness in our laws—partners not being able to have the same rights as married couples. That is another whole issue we will work on."

The distinction between marriage and partnership isn't the only institution being challenged. Technically, the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Manual for Courts-Martial prohibit sodomy, bigamy, adultery, "wrongful" cohabitation, and incest. But these rules are now seldom enforced, and reformers are trying to repeal them. Nine years ago, the Commission on the 50th Anniversary of the Uniform Code of Military Justice proposed to decriminalize sodomy and adultery. And last year, the Commission on Military Justice reinforced the sodomy proposal, citing Lawrence v. Texas and "changes in sexual behavior that have occurred since the creation of the UCMJ."

Sodomy and adultery laws do seem outdated and silly. But if those laws are repealed on the grounds that consensual sex is private, it's hard to explain why the reform shouldn't extend to other laws. What about bigamy and incest? The "polyamory community," claiming support from the ACLU, accuses the military of persecuting polyamorous troops. A Web site dedicated to "Full Marriage Equality" calls on supporters of the DADT repeal to consider

the men and women who risked their lives (and those who gave them) and endured so many things in service to their country, who haven't been free to be who they really are and share their lives openly with the person or persons they love. Shouldn't someone who risked their life for this county be able to marry someone of the same sex, or more than one person, or a biological relative? Or at least share a life with the person(s) he or she loves without a fear that their own government will be against them? Is bravery and valor negated if a man loves another man, or his long lost sister?

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Laugh or snort if you want to, but it's a serious question. If DADT repealers are correct that sex is a matter of personal liberty and it doesn't matter "who you love," why shouldn't that defense cover polyamory and sibling couples? Switzerland is proposing to drop its incest law on exactly this basis. In the United States, the lawyer for David Epstein, the Columbia professor recently charged with incest, asks why tolerance of "what goes on privately in bedrooms" shouldn't extend to his client. "It's OK for homosexuals to do whatever they want in their own home," the lawyer notes. "How is this so different?"

You can argue that homosexuality is quite different. But to make that case, you have to go beyond privacy and consent. You have to draw moral distinctions. Homosexuality isn't just a matter of who you love. It's a matter of who you are. And it's compatible with traditional sexual values.

The conservative assumption about homosexuality, freely vented in the DADT debate, is that it's a "behavior" and "lifestyle." But nobody who's gay experiences it that way. You don't choose to be gay. You just are gay. This, too, was a common theme of the DADT repeal. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that DADT "forces young men and women to lie about who they are." In Saturday's Senate debate, Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., said repeal would let troops "be honest about who they are." Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the policy punished people "not because of something they did but because of who they are."

If homosexuality is an orientation rather than a preference or choice—if it's a matter of who you are, not who you love—then it's detachable from other kinds of sexual deviance. In fact, it isn't deviant. A gay person can be just as faithful and monogamous as a straight person. And military rules of sexual propriety can apply just the same. As Boxer noted during Saturday's debate:

The military has a very strict code of conduct … Everybody in the military must adhere to it, whether you are heterosexual, homosexual … In 1993 we had just come through this horrible scandal called Tailhook. It was awful. You had a series of rapes … Action was taken. So, clearly, heterosexuals in the military, when they misbehave in a sexual way, are going to be punished. It is the same way for improper homosexual behavior. It will not be tolerated. That is the point. I said that "Don't ask, don't tell" is a policy of discrimination based on your status instead of your behavior.

If the fall of DADT is ultimately interpreted this way—as a rethinking of homosexuality, not of sexual morals generally—it won't satisfy libertines or libertarians. But culturally, it might prove easier to digest. Is homosexuality about who you love or who you are? That debate, unresolved by the fight over DADT, will rage on.

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