Swimming Pools and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell': A Guest Post

With the Democrats in control of Congress, and with the prediction markets suggesting a Democratic presidential victory, there has been a lot of talk about ending sexual orientation discrimination in the military by repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (“DADT”) policy.

There are always two ways of ending de jure discrimination: you can level up, or level down. In the late 1950s, the estimable city of Greensboro, N.C., operated a whites-only swimming pool. When a group of African Americans petitioned the city council to end the segregation, the council relented — by closing the pool to both whites and blacks.

As such, there are also two ways to end the military’s de jure discrimination based on sexual orientation. We can either repeal DADT, or we could extend its application to heterosexuals as well. If extended, no soldier could talk about his or her orientation without risk of exclusion.

My own church, St. Thomas Episcopal in New Haven, tried a version of this strategy. In 2004, the church vestry adopted a resolution “calling for St. Thomas’s clergy to treat same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples equally in administering the sacrament of marriage,” as the church Web site describes it. The Bishop was not amused, and within 3 days he called an emergency meeting warning our rector, Father Michael Ray, that he risked being defrocked if he performed marriage ceremonies for any same-sex couples inside the church. Ray responded by honoring both the request of the vestry and the demands of the Bishop by announcing a moratorium on the celebration of all marriages. The Times ran a great piece describing the event.

Extending DADT could similarly allow the military to serve seemingly conflicting goals. It would satisfy those people who cling to the antiquated idea that DADT is necessary to preserve “unit cohesion.” Homophobes wouldn’t be put off by having to serve with openly gay comrades. But as a matter of formal law, it would treat everyone the same with regard to their sexual orientation.

Let me be clear: I favor the immediate repeal of DADT. I don’t buy the unit cohesion argument. You can read more about my views on DADT (to borrow from “Naked Self Promotion”) in Chapter 6 of this book. But the real value in the idea of extending DADT to heterosexuals is as a thought experiment. It makes clear the costs of closeting. It’s hard to imagine what married soldiers would have to do to comply. Extending DADT would be a recruiting disaster, and could be far more destructive of unit cohesion. Suddenly, heterosexuals would have to bear the same kinds of costs that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender soldiers have been bearing for years (just as heterosexual couples at our church have had to bear the same costs that LGBT couples have borne — not being able to religiously marry).

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  1. Nate says:

    After following this blog for some time, and reading each of Mr. Ayres posts, I increasingly wonder what he adds to this exceptional forum. From what I can tell, his posts have very little to do with Freakonomics — or economics for that matter. He seems to prefer using this space as a sounding board for his political beliefs. My suggestion to Mr. Ayres is to start his own blog or stick to the spirit of this one.

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  2. Justin says:

    Just because you don’t believe unit cohesion would have any problems doesn’t make it so. I tend to think the same thing, however I also think it should be left up to the military itself to decide what is best for its own effectiveness. I also believe that the effectiveness of the military is much more important than having “fair” admission policies.

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  3. ian twolan says:

    DADT is a flawed and failed policy. The policy in the Armed Forces should be – if we find out you are gay, lesbian, transgendered or any other kind of sexual pervert, you will be dis-honorably discharged by sundown that day.

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  4. minority opinion says:

    I’m in the minority. I don’t believe any marriages should be recognized by any government. Marriage is religious. Let the church decide who gets married. Let the government recognize only legal contracts between consenting adults, and any number of them.

    I do agree though, that I really like the economics stuff on this site more than political opinions.

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  5. Morin says:

    I wonder – if DADT is extended, what would it mean for in-unit relationships as they are today? I mean, couples are not allowed to serve together, if I understand correctly. If no one is allowed to talk about their sexuality and relationships, would it then be okay for these couples to serve together, as they cannot report these relationships?

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  6. Kyle says:

    I have frequently thought of applying a similar idea to the St. Thomas Episcopal solution to my own personal life. Specifically, I want to abstain from marriage or any of the benefits that marriage brings to heterosexual couples until homosexual couples are allowed the same rights. Granted that my little protest would not be quite as effective as segregation protests of businesses by white people back in the 50’s, but it sure would make me feel more equal with people subjected to discrimination.

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  7. Mike says:

    I have to agree with Justin. I am a strong supporter of gay marriage because it’s simply the fair thing. But the military (and just about every military in human history) has a long history of putting effectiveness and functionality above fairness. The military doesn’t let it’s members do a lot of things that are available in free society. The lengths to which the military will go to ensure things like “unit cohesion” can be staggering to us civilians. Remember this post?


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  8. mike says:

    Eventually all ranks will be OK with homosexuals serving. Most of the military now have no problem with it according to surveys — the younger you are, the less issues you have. Its the higher, i.e., older, ranks that still have issues. But they will retire or die. Clearly given that its not an issue in top rank military organizations (Israeli and British armed forces for example), it would not be an issue here. If it is, then we have a problem with discipline that would show up in other ways also. So its inevitable. And just like with segregation, economically it makes no sense at all to discriminate.

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