What Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Says About Today’s Cancel Culture
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which was repealed ten years ago, was the ultimate in cancel culture. It required gays to keep their identity an absolute secret as a condition of military service. Service members could not come out to anyone, anywhere, anytime, whether to a friend, family member, doctor, clergy, or fellow soldier, sailor, airman, marine or coastguardsman without the risk of discharge.
Some commanders even threatened to imprison gay service members if they lied about being gay when asked. Gay service members faced taunts and assault, not because they told, but because they were thought to be gay. Private First Class Barry Winchell was murdered at Fort Campbell, Kentucky because of the rumors swirling around him.
Harvard Professor Lawrence Tribe noted that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was the only law that prevented a group from speaking with a Member of Congress about being gay in the military because to do so would constitute a basis for being fired.
Today, Republicans cry cancel culture when others oppose their efforts to suppress the vote, erase history, overturn the election, oppose vaccine mandates, curb gun violence, ensure accountability for police abuse, or block immigration. Rather than engage in meaningful debate, their goal is to try to shut the debate down. That is as much a cancellation as is denying the civil liberties they oppose. And it is nothing new.
Justice Antonin Scalia decried the culture wars in a scathing dissent in Romer v. Evans, the 1996 Supreme Court decision that struck down an amendment to the Colorado constitution that prevented local governments from extending nondiscrimination to its lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens. Scalia wrote, “The Court has mistaken a Kulturkampf for a fit of spite.” He argued that the growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans would override the religious beliefs of others.
There is a dangerous trend today where white supremacy, domestic extremism and evangelism are converging. Four years ago, then Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas, and a likely 2024 Presidential aspirant, told an evangelical audience at a megachurch in his home state, “We will continue to fight these battles… It is a never-ending struggle … until the rapture. Be part of it. Be in the fight.” As The Guardian explained, “For Pompeo’s audience, the rapture invoked an apocalyptical Christian vision of the future, a final battle between good and evil, and the second coming of Jesus Christ, when the faithful will ascend to heaven and the rest will go to hell.”
Some of those who attacked our Capitol on January 6th, and who threatened to hang Vice President Mike Pence, believe that the end times justify the means. Those who trumpet Trumpism continue to stoke the fires of insurrection, desecration, and division.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is an object lesson of what happens when the federal government tries to silence and punish an entire class of Americans. Patriots who bled for our nation were the targets of an unrelenting campaign of discrimination and harassment. It was a career-ending action if a lesbian, gay or bisexual service member protested the government’s actions. We should heed history’s warning today. There are those of us who will not survive in a dystopian world where we are cancelled because of who we are. It should be a battle over ideas and ideals, not a battle for the survival for our democracy and us individually.