Professor Questions ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Posted: November 9, 2010 in Politics

Tony Lattis

Edgewood’s Jay Hatheway, chair of the History Department, spoke on campus about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning gay service members in the military, highlighting an issue that has become more relevant over the past few weeks.

A district court ruling in California late last month, state “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a violation of the constitutional rights of service members and ordered the military to cease enforcing the 17 year-old regulation that goes back to the Clinton administration.  According the Hatheway, this is the first successful ruling against “don’t ask, don’t tell” since the ban on gays in the military was officially enacted in 1943.

This is an issue that hits close to home for Hatheway, who was himself court marshaled and dismissed from the service in 1975.  He fought back along with another serviceman in what was the first constitutional challenge to the long-standing ban on gays in the military.

Hathway graduated from ROTC in 1971 and served as a second lieutenant in the special for four years.  While deployed in Germany, he became an intelligence officer with a top security clearance for the Green Beret division and was due for separation in August 1975.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was originally proposed as an improvement over the military’s former zero tolerance policy, but Hatheway contended “practically speaking, it changed absolutely nothing.”

However, three days before his tour of duty was over, Hatheway was informed that he was being investigated under Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military justice, the section regarding sexual behavior.  The Army discharged him dishonorably and recommended a seven year prison sentence which he was spared by the jury.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was originally propose as an improvement over the military’s former zero tolerance policy, but Hatheway contended “practically speaking, it changed absolutely nothing.  In reality, although they didn’t ask, appearing to be gay was the same as telling.”

Hatheway combined his case with another service member, Len Matlovich, an Air Force tech sergeant who had been indicted under the same claims six moths earlier.  Together they hoped to bring a two-pronged case against both the government and the armed forces.

It all resulted in a case that went to the Supreme Court and cost over a million dollars before it was finally struck down.  To this day, Hatheway still keeps the monumental case file in a shopping bag underneath his desk next to his feet.

“In all I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Hatheway mused.  “It convinced me I wanted to go into academics.”  Since then, he has become an extremely important activist for the gay community not only in Wisconsin but nationwide.  He has published two books about his experiences and the growth of homophobia in America.  Hatheway proudly displays a slew of letters for various politicians and dignitaries, and he’s had a profound effect on the Edgewood community as well.

Hatheway was responsible for the first organization for gay students at Edgewood College and worked for year producing a statewide magazine containing news coverage for the gay community in Wisconsin.  “The whole thing made me much more sensitive towards discrimination in our society, and I try and carry that through in my work here at Edgewood,” he said.

The future for “don’t ask, don’t tell” remains unclear, but on October 19, the military announced that it would allow the enlistment of openly gay recruits, with the caveat that this policy would be subject to reversal.  A week later, the Army began suing for an injunction on the court ruling, so the situation still remains in flux.  Still it could be the beginning of the end for a battle that has raged since gay rights first became a political force in the mid-1960s.

“I think that at this point most people just want it to go away.” -Jay Hatheway

According to Hatheway, since 1943, over 14,000 individuals have been dismissed from the Armed Forces because of allegations of homosexuality, and he maintains that to this day there have been no successful cases of legal retaliation.

“I think that at this point most people just want it to go away,” Hatheway said, but he explained that the legal steps to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice are extremely long and complicated and such change seems possible but very unlikely.  “The hope is that the Armed forces would just stop enforcing these regulations” regardless of any actual change on the books.

When asked if the military would ever strike the rule from its code, Hatheway responded, “Not during my lifetime.”


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