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Coming Out and Fitting In -- The Post-'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Era Begins

Tuesday, September 20 officially begins the military’s post-DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) era. This marks the official demise of an almost two-decade period when lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) military personnel feared that coming out would lead to being thrown out.

What will a post-DADT military look like? The naysayers have expressed concern that ending DADT will disrupt unit cohesion and America’s military readiness. Some have raised much ballyhooed fears that heterosexual men will be at the mercy of “the gays” while trapped in foxholes and submarines.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Just ask the military leaders in Britain, Israel, and Canada, who number among the more than forty countries now allowing their gay citizens to serve openly. Their experience has been that once the “gay panic” fuss dies down, good soldiers fall in line and do their duty. That is what our military leaders tell us they expect to happen here as well.

Until this moment, the U.S. military had been one of the few secular institutions left in American life where openly gay people were deliberately excluded. Oddly enough, this is the opposite of what happened with the racial integration of the U.S. Armed Services which preceded integration in civilian life.

Why? Long ago, many U.S. and multi-national corporations recognized the recruiting value of making their workplaces LGBT (that’s “T” for transgender) friendly. Academic departments also have gay-friendly policies for professors, administrators and students. Police departments around the country, and not just in San Francisco, have reached out to gay people in diversity efforts to recruit minorities.

And while few today would currently call the U.S. Congress a well-functioning organization, nevertheless it too has several openly gay members. As do statehouses around the country and many executive mansions house gay mayors and county executives as well. Where and when gay people have been accepted, they not only fit in they may also rise to positions of leadership.

One early example of this happened in my own profession of psychiatry. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from its list of mental disorders. The discussion around that decision among psychiatrists of that time was probably as contentious as today’s debates about DADT. Opponents of removal even petitioned and were granted the right to hold an unprecedented referendum on the APA decision. They lost (58-42% of 10,000 psychiatrists voting).

One result of the 1973 APA decision is that it became possible for LGB psychiatrists to come out. Before then, an “openly gay psychiatrist” was not only an oxymoron, but probably unemployed as well. Echoing recent DADT arguments, opponents falsely painted LGB physicians as potential predators who should not be allowed near patients.

Not only has psychiatry survived the coming out and integration of LGB psychiatrists, it has thrived. APA now has 38,000 members and many LGB psychiatrists are now respected as leaders, colleagues, teachers and clinicians. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any institution with gay-friendly policies that has not benefited from this inclusiveness.

I predict the U.S. armed services will weather the post-DADT, put the painful past behind (as it did with the history of racial segregation), and our military personnel (straight and gay) will get on with the business of serving our country and its citizens.

Jack Drescher, M.D. is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a past president of the New York County District Branch of the APA. He is co-editor of American Psychiatry and "Homosexuality: An Oral History" (Taylor and Francis).