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A Glimpse into the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Closet

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This week the Pentagon released a study concluding that gay men and women serving openly in the armed forces present a low risk to the military's effectiveness. The report also included the result of a survey showing that most service members favor a repeal of the "don't' ask, don't tell" law. The report concluded that effective leadership could mitigate any potential disruption to the armed forces caused by discomfort with gay soldiers.

While repeal would cause little harm, numerous critics have detailed both the financial and security costs of continuing DADT. There are psychological costs as well.

This was evident in a New York Times article that shed light on a secret, dark place: the closeted lives of lesbian and gay cadets at West Point. To avoid discharge under DADT, these young people engage in a series of mental and behavioral gymnastics. One cadet admits he learned "how to be a good actor." Another, tired of "hiding" her sexual identity, publicly resigned after two years at the Academy.

"Acting" and "hiding," common ways of describing life in the closet, and are surface manifestations of the underlying psychology of maintaining secret identities for long periods of time. While gay people are not the only ones who hide secrets, the gay closet has unique features.

Gay people often spend long periods of their lives unable to acknowledge their own homosexuality to themselves or to others. Beginning in childhood and throughout adolescence, being "tagged" as gay can lead to teasing, ridicule, family rejection and even violence. For aspiring young cadets, being gay means giving up dreams of a life of service to one's country. So they, like many gay people, treat their same-sex feelings as an unpleasant fact they would rather not know about themselves or admit to others. They keep those feelings out of awareness and separated from their public personas.

Given some consequences of being gay -- estrangement from family and community, loss of employment, loss of home, loss of child custody, loss of opportunity, loss of status and even blackmail -- not thinking "I am gay" can seem an adaptive option for surviving a hostile environment.

The solution to one problem, however, creates others. Constant hiding takes its toll. It is painful to continuously hide important parts of the self or to always keep parts of the self separated from each other. As a way of hiding, they may choose to adopt public, heterosexual identities. This leads some closeted gay people to heterosexually marry yet lead secret homosexual lives.

However, the mental effort needed to maintain a double life sometimes leads to errors in judgment and engaging in compromising situations, which may explain the parade of married, anti-gay public figures who have been arrested for public lewdness or outed by indiscreet male prostitutes.

When hiding becomes too painful, some people come out. They do so even though the benefit of being a whole person risks exposure to the social stigma attached to homosexuality. Coming out can be particularly difficult in religious communities that condemn homosexuality and in the US military. Given the difficulties often associated with revealing a gay identity, it seems a wonder anyone in these communities comes out at all.

Why come out? One ex-cadet who did said, "I have lied to my classmates and compromised my integrity and my identity by adhering to existing military policy. I am unwilling to suppress an entire portion of my identity any longer." The case for repealing "don't ask, don't tell" and choosing psychological unity could not be expressed any better.

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