ACLU History: Challenging Don't Ask Don't Tell

September 1, 2010
In yet another ongoing gay rights battle involving the federal government, the ACLU brought its first challenge to an anti-gay military policy in 1970, and continues to advocate against the military's misguided notion that lesbians and gay men pose 'an unacceptable threat to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability,' according to President Clinton's infamous 'don't' ask, don't tell' policy.

1997 brought a hard-won – but all too brief – victory in the case of Able v. United States, in which a federal district court in New York agreed with the ACLU's arguments that 'don't ask, don't tell' violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Unfortunately, an appeals court reversed the decision.

The ACLU of Washington brought a new challenge to 'don't ask, don't tell' on behalf of Major Margaret Witt, a decorated U.S. Air Force flight nurse, who was discharged after the military learned that she was in a relationship with another woman. The case is ongoing, but in an earlier ruling in the case, a federal appeals court ruled that the military must prove on an individual basis why discharges under 'don't ask, don't tell' are justified.

By all accounts, the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy has taken a deep toll on our military. Since 1993, over 13,000 service members have been discharged due to their sexual orientation (including, since 9/11, more than 55 Arab linguists). President Obama has pledged to sign a repeal to the policy, and advocates are hopeful that patriotic LGBT Americans will soon be able to serve their country openly, with dignity and pride.


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