Psychoanalytic Excavation

A Look at What Lies beneath the Surface of Human Behavior and Motivation

The Military's Closet

The emotional damage of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

The tide seems to be finally turning in favor of reversing the pernicious policy known as "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) . "Don't Ask Don't Tell" is the military policy, in effect since 1993, whereby gays and lesbians in the military are "allowed" to stay in the military as long as their sexual preference is kept in the closet. Promulgated under the Clinton administration as an attempted compromise between those who felt that gays did not belong in the military and those who felt their exclusion was both ridiculous and discriminatory, DADT has, like so many aspects of social policy, had unintended negative consequences.

At the end of his State of the Union Address on Wednesday night, President Obama uttered these welcome words: "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do." The Military Readiness Enhancement Act, sponsored in Congress by Representative Patrick Murphy (D - PA), would eliminate the DADT policy.

Today, the lead editorial in the New York Times, "Ending ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell'" praised Obama's speech but seemed to indicate that pressure should be maintained to see that the administration follows through. The Times concluded that the military should work with Obama to repeal the law quickly, as it keeps people with vital skills from contributing to military success, and adds to the already difficult challenges faced by homosexual soldiers.

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The Times also shot down several prevalent myths about why gays should be excluded from military service. For example, gay people serve openly and successfully in many countries, including Israel and Britain. Claims that unit cohesion will be harmed by including openly gay soldiers, once popularly believed to be true, have been solidly refuted by military personnel.

In 2009, The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) issued a position statement on the psychological damage caused by the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy. As president of the Association, I was proud when a journalist told me, back in July, that to her knowledge we were the only mental health organization with such a policy statement on record.

APsaA's research and clinical experience adds the following psychological ill effects of DADT to the social and military problems mentioned in the Times editorial:

• Increased stress levels are seen in soldiers who are not able to freely access partners and friends back home for needed support

• The emotional toll of keeping sexual orientation hidden is well-documented

• Increased isolation of those living under DADT leads to greater vulnerability to stress-related disorders

Decades ago, psychoanalytic practitioners sometimes did serious damage to gay and lesbian individuals by pathologizing their sexual orientation and misapplying psychoanalytic theoretical constructs. We've been making strides towards removing the psychological stigma of homosexuality and rectifying the social ostracism homosexuals face. The next, crucial step is one that our current administration finally seems willing to take: repealing the equally damaging Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.

Prudence Gourguechon, M.D., served as President of the American Psychoanalytic Association from 2008-2010. She has a clinical and consulting practice in Chicago.

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