Thursday, 23 December 2010

Further thoughts on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell

My work involves listening to people put their intimate behavior, including sex, into words, which is not as easy as it sounds. Once you get beyond the five Ws of Who, What, When etc., questions along the lines of, So what, Why and Would you do it again? are not so easy either to formulate or to answer coherently.

In reviewing hundreds of pages of transcripts of interviews done in the mid-2000s during the heyday of this peculiar policy—which would never have worked during the debate over desegregation of the armed forces since being black isn’t so easy to dissemble—I am struck by how often the metaphor of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was used by our subjects, mostly gay-identified men, to describe a curious silence about HIV status that many said had become routine.

A lot of these guys’ disease avoidance strategies included a variety of techniques to determine whether a prospective partner was HIV-positive or not. These approaches did not always, and in fact frequently did NOT, include asking. There was something disagreeable and mood-slaughtering about bringing up the topic of what to do about disease.

A lot of people find it hard to believe that a guy wouldn’t ask his partner about HIV, to which I always inquire, Did you? The last time you had sex, did you spruce up your seduction routine by saying, Oh and by the way, Do you have a deadly disease that you might give me later if I’m not careful? It’s easier to tell other people what they should be doing than to follow one’s own sensible instructions especially when out Looking for Love, however we define that.

My impression is that the introduction by Clinton of hiding and avoiding as official policy had a spillover effect in the realm of intimate behavior. The military did not invent the closet, but the policy’s shorthand phrase reaffirmed that pretending and avoiding was proper and reasonable, that it was respectful to cover up and dangerous to tell the truth.

It can hardly surprise us that these habits should not be confined to the barracks.