03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Memo to Pentagon: Can We Talk About "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or Not?

Talk about weird mixed signals. Last week, an Air Force Colonel serving in the Office of the Secretary of Defense published a study calling for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in an official military journal. Col. Om Prakash is only the second actively-serving officer to be willing to state, on record, that the gay ban should be lifted. Not only did a military journal consent to publish Col. Prakash's article, but it won a military essay contest as well. And the study only saw the light of day because an official in the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved its publication. Wow!

Then came today's news: A Lieutenant Colonel who taught at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO, was punished and barred from teaching after she invited three Academy alumni to campus to discuss gays in the military. The professor, Lt. Col. Edith A. Disler, cleared the visit with her boss (known as the course director), but Academy officials pulled her from the classroom anyway, launching an investigation that ended in a formal reprimand based on the subject matter discussed.

Lt. Col. Disler's reprimand occurred late last year when she learned that a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) combat veterans, who were also alumni of the Academy, offered speaking engagements as part of the Blue Alliance, which promotes education for, and support of, GLBT service members. A week after a classroom visit that Disler described as very well-received by students, she learned that she was being investigated, and was told she could not return to the classroom and could not discuss the matter with students, but she was not told the reason for the investigation. She was eventually told she was being investigated to determine if she had violated any policies or procedures or any "classroom decorum."

What's particularly bizarre about Col. Disler's reprimand is that the Air Force Academy scolded her for a "lack of judgment in not recognizing that negative publicity could follow" from her decision to have members of the Blue Alliance visit campus. "Your failure caused significant consternation with USAFA's senior leadership and had the potential to create the perception that the USAF Academy does not support current Air Force and Department of Defense policy on a this [sic] sensitive matter."

But if the Pentagon is publishing studies calling for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," what's so bad about discussing the issue in a classroom, especially when the discussants are Academy graduates? Indeed, outside visitors come discuss policy issues at the Academy all the time. I have delivered lectures on "don't ask, don't tell" at the Air Force Academy every year for the past six or seven years, and this has never caused any negative publicity or a perception that the Academy does not support current policy on this sensitive matter. Isn't it the censoring itself that risked negative publicity?

Disler, who had her retirement date set, said her superiors seemed to suggest she take pains to avoid garnering attention or visibility around the incident, saying, "We just want you to make it to your retirement date." Disler said this was "about the last, worst insult I could receive after my long career, to be told, 'we just want you to leave quietly.'" She interpreted the comments as saying she should be grateful to leave without a last-minute court-martial or investigation of her sexuality under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The mixed signals coming out of the Pentagon are a picture-perfect illustration of the contradiction at the heart of "don't ask, don't tell." About half of all troops know a gay person in the military, yet the law insists that no one is allowed to acknowledge being gay. When gay troops are honest about who they are, in general they're accepted by peers. When they hide and fabricate heterosexual masks, their peers know that they are being lied to and marginalize the closeted gay service member in response.

So, are service members supposed to talk honestly about sexual orientation or not? Military policy, law and culture answer with a mixed signal: yes and no. Sometimes answering "yes" gets you in trouble, as Lt. Col. Disler discovered. Others, like Col. Prakash, win awards. The policy makes no sense. Never has, never will.

ADDENDUM October 11, 2009

In the original version of this post, I failed to present the Air Force Academy's side of the story. An Academy spokesperson has told an Associated Press reporter that policy requires professors to obtain approval from Department Heads before inviting outside speakers into the classroom. The spokesperson said that Lt. Col. Disler was disciplined for failing to follow that rule, not for addressing a controversial topic in class, saying: "She did violate policy that did exist at that time and still exists today." I apologize for the omission of the Air Force's side of the story.

That said, I continue to disagree with the Air Force Academy's interpretation of the case. The policy in question is known as "FOI 36-173 Class Visits." At the time of the incident, the policy stated that, "When in the opinion of the Department Head, the presence of a visitor could result in publicity for the Air Force Academy, the Department Head must notify the Vice Dean of the Faculty in advance."

All sides agree that before inviting guest speakers to class, Lt. Col. Disler obtained approval from one of her bosses, the Course Director. But she did not notify or get permission from another boss, the Department Head. That said, no publicity was planned or reasonably expected for this event. I am aware of literally dozens of professors at military service academies who have discussed "don't ask, don't tell" in their classes without attracting publicity. I myself have taught dozens of classes about "don't ask, don't tell" at military service academies without attracting publicity. Because there was no reasonable expectation of publicity, the requirement to seek the approval of the Department Head, who would in turn notify the Vice Dean, seems moot.

Lt. Col. Disler's reprimand, known as her Letter of Counseling, does not mention any violation of policy. Rather, it reprimands her for failing "to meet standards of professional conduct" and for a "lack of judgment." It is odd, if Lt. Col. Disler violated policy, that her reprimand letter would fail to note the violation. Lt. Col. Disler says that her letter did not mention a violation of policy because there was no violation. The Academy should explain why, given that it is now claiming that Lt. Col. Disler violated policy, she was not reprimanded for the violation. It should also produce a written copy of the policy or procedure which she violated and which was in effect at the time. Neither Lt. Col. Disler nor I have been able to obtain a copy of any such policy.

There is a surface and a subtext to any case, and caution certainly seems reasonable in the wake of the sexual assault and religious intolerance scandals of 2003. However, policy that is implemented unwisely has the potential to victimize both innocent persons and academic freedom. The surface question here is whether Lt. Col. Disler violated policy. On that count, available evidence suggests to me that she did not. The subtextual question, however, is how much latitude professors should have to address tough issues in class. So, aside from the procedural question about whether or not Lt. Col. Disler was required to get permission from her Course Director, another lens through which to understand the situation is that someone reacted negatively to a discussion of "don't ask, don't tell" and complained. Rather than acknowledging the value of addressing a wide range of topics, the Academy indulged the complaint and then framed the indulgence in terms of Lt. Col. Disler's violation of policy.