The Oregonian discovers "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Marc Abrams

The Oregonian came out this morning for a repeal of "don’t ask don’t tell," calling for the full and open ability for gays and lesbians to serve in the military. Noting that acceptance of gays in the military is now at 75%, they are asking what is taking so long. I have only one question for the Oregonian: what took you so long?

In 1995, I was elected to the Portland School Board. Two months later, the Board passed my proposal to ban military recruiters from PPS schools because of "don’t ask, don’t tell." The action had nothing to do with personal sentiments about war or the military – it would not have been my place to tell students what politics to adopt. It was, strictly speaking, a matter of barring an employer that discriminated from using our District to further its discriminatory hiring practices. Our Board believed that if you want to hire any of our students, you have to be willing to hire every one of our students who meet the job’s qualifications.

The outcry was immediate – from the Oregonian. Over the next several years, they editorialized no fewer than four times against the ban. They argued that this was federal policy we had no right to resist, even though it clearly was the District’s legal right to bar recruiters (no law suit was ever filed), and I seriously doubt there would have been an outcry had a private sector company that openly discriminated been barred. What the Oregonian never mentioned was that the editorial page editor’s brother was the chief of the Oregon National Guard in those years – a personal if not technical conflict that should have been disclosed. (PPS repealed the ban as to the Guard in 1999 after being presented with evidence that they were openly allowing gays to serve despite don’t ask don’t tell)

The PPS ban lasted eight years. Ultimately, a reactionary "family values" congressman from Louisiana, David Vitter (yes, that David Vitter, now a Senator and apparent user of call girls) attached an amendment to No Child Left Behind that stripped any school district of all its federal funds if they did not let in recruiters. Faced with almost seventy million per year of blackmail, PPS had little choice but to repeal the ban.

I never fooled myself that there was much chance the ban was going to change military policy, but I did feel it was our important statement to our gay students that we supported them. Now the Oregonian, belatedly agrees. Why? For no more compelling reason than that the polls now favor gays in the military. Sorry, but when discrimination is wrong, you don’t wait for the polls. Apparently, the Big O is willing to call for policy changes, but not to support those who want to do anything about immoral policies. And even when they do support change, it isn’t until three out of four people already agree with them. In that, they are like Gilbert & Sullivan’s Duke of Plaza-Toro:

"In enterprise of martial kind, When there was any fighting, He led his regiment from behind (He found it less exciting). But when away his regiment ran, His place was at the fore, O- That celebrated, Cultivated, Underrated Nobleman, The Duke of Plaza-Toro!"

I appreciate that the Oregonian has finally gotten to a position supported by Portlanders a decade and a half ago, but it’s a bit little and it’s a lot late. Thanks for the "leadership," Big O!

  • mlw (unverified)

    I agree with you about don't ask, don't tell, but are you really telling me that school systems should be in the business of denying students access to information about an employer because you believe the employer is immoral? Well, there are a lot of employers involved in perfectly legal enterprises that I think are immoral. Should I get to determine which ones should be able to recruit on campus based on my perception of the morality of their enterprise? Wouldn't that involve imposing my own personal beliefs on a captive audience? What's next, no driver's ed because I think that driving contributes to global warming?

    Whether we like it or not, don't ask, don't tell is the law of the land. Working to repeal it is laudable. Punishing students by denying them information about serving the country and punishing the military for policies adopted by the civilian president and congress seem misguided. We should direct our efforts in the appropriate directions to achieve the reforms we seek. We should not seek to unilaterally impose our beliefs on others through non-democratic means.

  • (Show?)

    To mlw:

    What I'm saying, and what I said for all those years, was that (1) the information is readily available -- the military spent at the time $300,000,000 on recruiting ads, and (2) it's not just immoral. In the context of employment for anyone but the federal government, in Portland at the time it would have been illegal -- Portland had an anti-discrimination ordinance that barred such actions for any employer.

    I don't understand why you consider an act of a duly-elected political body by majority vote "anti-democratic." The PPS Board clearly adn legaly has the right to determine who uses its facilities. We determined that NO employer who discrimnated on the basis of orientation could use our facilities. That happened to include the US military.

    The comparison to drivers ed is a stretch. This is a fundamental principal of human dignity. By your standards, no one should have ascted to end discrimination against Blacks prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being passed. We need not wait for the federal government to act -- we're a federalist system, and localities and districts have the right to pass laws and control their own facilities.

  • (Show?)

    Immoral, yes, but only in the sense that discrimination is immoral.

    Discriminatory is more to the point, and as Mr. Abrams indicates, 'illegal' also would be a more correct frame to describe the actions of the military here wrt. PPS (and if I remember correctly, didn't PPS apply its rule in a similar manner toward the Boy Scouts of America?).

    One thing I'm hoping for, with a Democratic President and strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, is that Congress does SOME work on repealing things like Vitter's amendment on NCLB. Of course, that would probably have to go along with a wholesale change in who we allow to fight for their country...

  • mlw (unverified)

    Yes, PPS is a democratically elected body, and yes, they could prohibit military recruiters. But, by the same token, the federal government, which established the policy through democratically elected representatives, could also cut off all federal funds for PPS as a result. I fail to see how this would profit the students over the long haul.

    On the broader issues, this one pits two competing interests against one another. I strongly believe that children should be taught about their obligation (moral, not legal) to perform public service, and the military is an important part of that. I've been in for 14 years, active and reserve, and, while I don't agree with every military policy, I think the principle of subordinating your own personal opinions for the greater good is something we should teach children. The military teaches that principle well. On the other hand, the civilian authorities have saddled the military with a legal, but immoral policy of discrimination without a valid basis. That offends me deeply. However, we should direct our efforts in a productive direction, rather than depriving kids of information about the opportunities for military service (including educational benefits that will benefit them for life).

    The good news is that at least one of the candidates has committed to changing the policy, recruits to the military widely support changing the policy, and even the other candidate probably won't make the policy worse. Even Sam Nunn, who was deathly opposed to recinding the gay ban, has conceded that he's open to reconsidering it.

  • Laura Calvo (unverified)

    "I fail to see how this would profit the students over the long haul."

    The denial of funding might not profit anyone.

    However the position of the PPS to ban recruiters, at the time, most likely fulfilled more of an educational purpose than most give credit to the PPS.

    In 1995 the children most influenced by the ban on recruiters would have been 12 to 18 years old. They got a message that discrimination was wrong. 13 years later they are all adults who can vote and are most likely part of the 75% who are in favor of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

    Not only did the school board support gay students at the time, but helped in bringing light to unjust and unfair discrimination to all of it's students.

    It also goes to show just how important it is to have progressive elected officials at every level of government. From the school board to the Presidency.

    Thank you, Marc Abrams and the rest of the school board who led the way.

    Your leadership then is your legacy now.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    I agree with you about don't ask, don't tell, but are you really telling me that school systems should be in the business of denying students access to information about an employer because you believe the employer is immoral?

    The school systems weren't "denying students access to information." The students were completely free to visit any other venue where military recruiters operated.

    Check this for a related debate earlier this year in Central Oregon.

  • mlw (unverified)

    Oh come now, you make it sound like the recruiters are preaching hatred against homosexuals in the school system! Isn't the first half of the policy name "don't ask"? I can't see them preaching in the school hallways about the alleged evils of homosexuality. I'm sure recruiters would love to get rid of the policy. It's not like they're drowning in applicants with two wars going on.

    Frankly, I think the argument that high school students are being led to hate homosexuals by the mere presence of recruiters in schools is absurd. Just as acceptance of homosexuality has improved in society in general, it has increased in the military, and a majority of incoming service members would not have a problem serving with open homosexuals.

    I see this as part of a larger trend to blame the military for a policy largely foisted upon it by the civilian leadership. Here's an interesting study about improving attitudes in the Navy, and it's already 8 years old. Don't blame the military for a civilian policy.

    As for kids going elsewhere for information, I suppose they could. However, I think the government has a right to advertise opportunities for public service in the public schools. If there's one thing we do agree on, it's that electing progressive candidates is an appropriate way to change the policy.

  • Rick Attig (unverified)

    Mark Abrams is deliberately confusing The Oregonian's opposition to a Portland school ban on military recruiters with some sort of silence or support for don't ask, don't tell. He starts his post with a question: What took The Oregonian so long to oppose the military's don't ask, don't tell policy? Here's one answer: It's a copy of an editorial I wrote for The Oregonian. Check the date.


    Source: THE OREGONIAN Thursday,December 16, 1999 Edition: SUNRISE, Section: EDITORIAL, Page B08 Thursday, December 16, 1999 'DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL' HAS FAILED

    Military policy has spurred dishonesty, discrimination; the right answer is to allow homosexuals to serve openly

    The nation has averted its eyes from the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military for too long.

    The policy -- his policy -- is a failure, President Clinton admitted the other day. What was born out of an awkward compromise in 1993 has grown into a full-blown policy of dishonesty and discrimination.

    "Don't ask, don't tell" can't be tinkered with and fixed. The policy isn't just "out of whack," as the president suggested hopefully. It just doesn't work. And it can't be repaired.

    It must be replaced with a straightforward, honest policy that allows gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military, and holds them to the same behavior standards as heterosexuals.

    "Don't ask, don't tell" is ruining lives, and weakening the U.S. military. The policy is back in the news not because Hillary Clinton, first lady and U.S. Senate candidate, attacked it the other day, but because an Army private was convicted last week of beating a fellow American soldier, a gay man, to death with a baseball bat.

    The victim was Pfc. Barry L. Winchell, 21, who had endured months of taunts and other harassment before he was attacked and bludgeoned to death by fellow Pfc. Calvin Glover. Glover was convicted by a court-martial and sentenced to life in prison.

    There is more, much more, than this horrific case to indict "don't ask, don't tell." The policy is driving hundreds of good soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out of the services. Between 1993 and 1998, the number of gays discharged from the military increased to 1,149 from 682.

    That number keeps growing. Last week a military investigator recommended that the Army discharge reserve Lt. Steve May, an Arizona state lawmaker, who discussed his homosexuality during a legislative hearing in February. May is rated an exceptional officer with an unblemished career -- just like many of the men and women drummed out of the services for admitting they were homosexual.

    After the Winchell murder, the Pentagon ordered up more sensitivity training and promised to do a better job of conducting harassment investigations. That's not good enough.

    It's clear what needs to be done. The president should order the military to accept gays and lesbians and accord them the same rights and responsibilities of heterosexual service members. At the same time, sexual misconduct should remain against military regulations. The military policy should be about conduct, not sexual orientation.

    If Congress challenges that open policy, then bring on the debate. It's time to face directly the issue of gays in the military, and to declare that homosexuals may serve openly in the nation's armed forces.

  • (Show?)

    To Rick Attig --

    OK, I stand corrected that the Oregonian only waited for four years after PPS took its action, while it simultaneously and inconsistently continued to disparrage the action PPS took. So the Oregonian was only inconsistent after 1999 and silent before then when others were speaking out. Today's editorial is frankly much weaker than Rick's from 1999, in that the implication is the morality or legality should follow public opinion rather than seek to find a basic premise defining human rights, as Locke would have done.

    I apologize to Rick for not having access to the Big O's archives as he has, and not remembering they finaly saw the light, albeit many years into the debate. That means he's only got two facts wrong in his post (1) the spelling of my name, and (2) his unsupported conclusion that my omission was deliberate, which is not based on any fact he can point to. Not bad for the Oregonian.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    When I served in the Air Force in the 1950s there were fellow airmen in my squadron who were apparently homosexual but who were never harassed. At one time a friend advised me that some in our squadron thought I was homosexual. Apparently they were not aware of what I was up to during my weekends in London. I asked my friend what gave them the idea I was homosexual. He said they came to that conclusion because I spent a lot of time in the library and "only queers would sit around in the library reading books." I suspect they used "queers" instead of homosexuals because the latter word had too many syllables.

  • Harry Kershner (unverified)

    mlw said, "...while I don't agree with every military policy, I think the principle of subordinating your own personal opinions for the greater good is something we should teach children"

    I appreciate the fact, mlw, that you want to serve your country. However:

    James A. Lucas (Deaths In Other Nations Since WW II Due To US Interventions) asserts that the U.S. has caused "...possibly 10,000" September 11ths in other countries since WWII. He has carefully documented the carnage, and he estimates that we have killed 20-30 million people in that time period.

    Our military, according to David Swanson (Executive Power and Its Constitutional Limitations) presently maintains "...a half million soldiers in 1,000 bases in 150 countries at great expense and to the serious endangerment of ourselves, generating resentment and hatred around the globe."

    Our policy-makers are not doing this to spread democracy or human rights. They are doing it for the same reasons that empire-minded nation-states have always done it: power and wealth.

    This "employer" is not operating "for the greater good", and we should not be teaching our children that it is. Our worship of all things military is a disturbing facet of American consciousness. The Germans can tell us something about this.

  • Rick Attig (unverified)

    Sorry, Marc, about the misspelling. I didn't catch it until after I pressed the send button, and then, of course, it was too late. I'm used to reading cheap shots about The Oregonian in the blogosphere, and your last line in the above post is a fine example. That's the way it is. But if you're going to rip the paper for showing no leadership on the issue of gays in the military over the past decade, and claim that the editorial board waited silently and gutlessly until polls showed that a majority of Americans were against it before we took a stance, you're flat wrong. Where I work we're not supposed to make those kinds of assertions without some evidence to back them up.

  • (Show?)

    Before the military can modify "don't ask don't tell," Congress must first amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to decriminalize sodomy and adultery.

  • (Show?)


    Not true. Under Lawrence v. Texas, sex between consenting adults can't be punished, so there isn't (or should not be) in the UCMJ a sodomy statute. If there is, it should not be enforceable.

    "Adultery" is the performance of a sexual act by one person in a marriage with another not in that marriage. Two gay single people do not commit adultery. A shame to even still think in those terms. Besides, whether or not a person -- striaght or gay -- has sex is irrelevant to the allowing service. For all you know, any given individual, striaght or gay, abstains. But even if they don't, that should not be a bar to service.

  • Misha (unverified)

    Marc is absolutely correct.

    Having been a gay student in Portland schools in the 1990s when this debate was raging, the school district's stance sent a powerful message that it would apply its non-discrimination policy consistently. The PPS policy was not by any means anti-military. It simply held that no matter what federal law says, discrimination against gays is just as insidious and intolerable as discrimination on the basis of race and religion.

    This argument that the school district was "withholding information" from students who wanted to be in the military is a red herring. Anyone who was a teenager in the 1990s knows that military recruiters are everywhere -- and they are aggressive. If they don't contact you in school, then they'll contact you on the street, at the mall, or they'll call you directly from telephone lists they've acquired. (Often they'd just stand across the street from the school and talk with students as they exited.) It's hard to believe that anyone who wanted to be in contact with a military recruiter -- or anyone who might be open to considering military service -- was denied access to those opportunities.

connect with blueoregon