Amherst Magazine

Talking About "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

By Emily Gold Boutilier

When “don’t ask, don’t tell” took effect in 1993, barring gays and lesbians from disclosing their sexual orientation while serving in the U.S. military, today’s college students weren’t paying attention; most of them were still in preschool. But last winter, when Amherst eliminated its requirement that on-campus military recruiters take part in public forums on “don’t ask, don’t tell” (see “Military Recruiting at Amherst,” College Row, Winter 2008), students took interest.

As a result, Martha Umphrey, professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, offered a primer on the 15-year-old military policy. In Pruyne Lecture Hall last winter, in advance of a U.S. Navy recruiter’s visit to campus, she talked about “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a compromise reached between those who wanted to end the ban against gays in the military and those who argued that such a change would undermine military strength.

Pointing to surveys on American public opinion, Umphrey, who opposes “don’t ask, don’t tell,” contended that early arguments in its favor are increasingly contested and diminishing in authority. In 2006, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of those surveyed favored allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, up from 52 percent in 1994. Support for the policy, Umphrey said, is also decreasing among military leaders and enlisted members. An estimated 10,000 members of the armed forces have been discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” according to a 2007 New York Times analysis of government statistics, with discharges decreasing noticeably since 9/11.

No one in Umphrey’s audience spoke in favor of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Several students spoke against it. Umphrey says that in the future, she’d like students to hear first-hand from service members, including those who’ve been discharged under the policy.