“Don’t ask, don’t tell” and your health

The recent repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) should provide some additional holiday cheer for public health professionals–as it represents a substantial victory not just for GLBTQ advocates, but for all of us who care about protecting and promoting sexual and reproductive health.

DADT, a federal law designed to prohibit gay and lesbian military members from revealing their sexual orientation, was first signed into law in 1993 as part of a larger policy compromise by President Bill Clinton. At the time, members of the military who were gay or lesbian would be discharged immediately. Advocates of DADT noted that it was meant to protect these individuals, particularly after a series of violent, well-publicized attacks.

An excellent commentary by Dr. Kenneth Katz in the latest New England Journal of Medicine (available here for NEJM subscribers: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1012496) gives us a sense of what happens when military members are afraid to reveal portions of their health history. In Katz’s community, men who would otherwise have regular testing and treatment for STIs might neglect these same services, fearing discovery and dishonorable discharge. Katz asserts, “I’ve heard the same thing from scores of other active-duty service members I’ve cared for clinically or interacted with socially.” In fact, Katz notes, “during a 2-month period in 2002, active-duty U.S. Navy sailors accounted for 9% of the clients of a gay men’s health clinic in San Diego”–men who were eligible for free, convenient on-base health services through TriCare.

We may never know exactly how DADT affected the health of gays and lesbians within the military. But we do know that most Americans–gay, bisexual, and straight–support its repeal.

To watch President Obama sign the repeal, click below: