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Don't Ask Don't Tell: Hiding in the Trenches

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Lieutenant Dan Choi, West Point graduate and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, is set to stand trial today on charges related to handcuffing himself to the White House gates in protest of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Choi, an Arabic linguist, came out as gay on television, after which the military initiated discharge proceedings.

The military is taking some steps toward repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Many are still resistant to the idea of changing this policy. Much of the resistance is stated as fear about loss of unit cohesion. Not enough attention has been paid, however, to the adverse psychological effects on individuals and on units when gay service members have to hide their sexual orientation.

In March, Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved changes to enforcement of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," saying that it was time to add "common sense and common decency" to the policy. One of the many troubling aspects of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been the absence of confidentiality with health care providers. Prior to these new guidelines, a gay service member could not be honest with a psychiatrist or a psychologist without fear of being reported. Secretary Gates now states that information provided to psychotherapists or medical professionals will no longer be used in support of discharges from the military. This is a step in the right direction. We can only hope that these guidelines will be enforced.

However, the law still has many other adverse psychological effects.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is the only law in the United States that forces people to be fired because of their sexual orientation. In order to serve in the military, gay service members have to lie about who they are. No keeping pictures of a loved one by the bunk. And if they are injured or killed in the line of duty, their loved one will not be notified because they are not able to put a loved one's name down as next of kin.

Lt. Choi was asked by Newsweek how it felt to be in the courtroom in handcuffs after spending a night in jail. His response? "Being in chains, for me, matched what was in my heart the whole time I was serving and was closeted." Our troops are already in highly stressful situations. Living in fear of being found out and losing their jobs, not to mention their identities as members of the military, adds an unnecessary burden to service members in a theater of war.

Soliders being forced to hide important aspects of themselves also negatively affects unit cohesion. In any work environment, sharing information about what one does outside of the office promotes collegiality and connection. On Monday morning when asked how your weekend was, do you give a vague "fine" and try to change the topic? Do you awkwardly change pronouns when reporting on your activities? If you do, surely your co-workers will notice, and feel shut out or disconnected. In a unit in which troops rely on each other literally to watch each other's backs, knowing and trusting each other is critically important.

The American Psychiatric Association has formally opposed all public and private discrimination against gay and lesbian people since 1973. In 1990, the APA issued a position statement against dismissal from the armed services on the basis of sexual orientation.

Yet here we are, 20 years later. It does not make sense to punish people who are willing to sacrifice for their country. But beyond reasons of "common sense and common decency," "Don't Ask Don't Tell" should be repealed because it has harmful psychological effects on both individual service members and on the units that are putting their lives on the line every day.