‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Hurts African-American Women the Most

Black women and other people of color have been disproportionately affected by the policy -- and as one woman's story illustrates, just the threat of discovery can take a terrible toll.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Since this article was written, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy has been repealed. In January 2011 the article was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award.

During the recent heated debates on Capitol Hill about repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” former Army Sgt. Tracey L. Cooper-Harris sent a poignant letter to President Barack Obama urging him to “do the right thing.”

Cooper-Harris, who is black, wrote in the May 10 letter that her male compatriots sexually blackmailed her as a teenager to guard her secret of being gay. “The signal from command was clear: being gay was a far more serious offense in the military than sexually harassing a fellow service member,” she wrote. “I ultimately chose what I believed was the best decision for me at the time. I let these men have their way with me in exchange for their silence.”

African-American Women Most at Risk

Cooper-Harris is not alone in her desire to see the law repealed. But as an African American woman in the military, she had particular reason for concern. Since “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was passed in 1993 under the Clinton administration, the law has proved to be most damaging to black women and other people of color serving in the military, according to a study released in 2003 by the Washington, D.C.-based Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).

African-American women were discharged under DADT at almost three times the rate at which they serve in the military, according to the report, which looked at discharge numbers for 2001, the most recent ones available for black service women. Although black women made up less than 1 percent of service members, they represented 3.3 percent of those discharged under the policy, the report says.

“We do not know why African-American women are so adversely impacted by this policy,” Anuradha K. Bhagwati, executive director of the New York City-based Service Women’s Action Network, told The Root. “We are in the midst of conducting a new study to try to understand why they are being hit so hard.”

More than 13,500 service members have been fired under DADT since 1994, according to the SLDN. In 2008, 45 percent of those discharged under DADT were people of color, according to data released in 2009 by Servicemembers United, even though they made up 30 percent of the military. Women constituted 34 percent of discharges in 2008 but accounted for 14 percent of the military.

It is hard to pinpoint why DADT disproportionately affects women, experts say, but the 2003 SLDN study cites lesbian baiting as one possibility. “Women are often called lesbians regardless of their sexual orientation, for a variety of reasons,” the study says. “Some men accuse women who refuse their sexual advances of being lesbians. Other men who sexually harass women accuse them of being lesbians when the women report the sexual harassment, in an attempt to turn the investigation away from their own misconduct.”

The report goes on to say that both men and women accuse female superior officers of being lesbians in retaliation for poor performance evaluations or unpopular orders. In other cases, successful women are accused of being lesbian to derail their careers.

Battles in the Courts and Congress

“To have a tool like ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is ridiculous, and it’s time for it to go,” says Stacey Long, federal legislative director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “I’m glad we have the courts on our side,” she says, citing a California judge’s ruling in September that DADT is unconstitutional.

In another recent case, a U.S. district judge ruled in Tacoma, Wash., that the Air Force violated the constitutional rights of Maj. Margaret Witt, who was discharged for being a lesbian, and ordered that the highly decorated flight nurse be reinstated “as soon as practical,” if she wanted.

Still, efforts to overturn DADT in the Senate have faltered. The measure to repeal it was blocked in September following a heated battle between Republicans and Democrats over legislative process, not over the details of DADT itself. But the bill is likely to be taken up again Dec. 1, when the Pentagon is scheduled to release findings of a study that shows the effects of ending policy.