Hypocritical? Don't Ask.

By William Saletan
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Poor Larry Craig. He's being held to the same standard of sexual conduct he imposed on the U.S. armed forces.

Fourteen years ago, in his first term as a Republican senator from Idaho, Craig helped enact the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The Air Force, for instance, now says that any airman will be discharged if he "has engaged in, attempted to engage in, or solicited another to engage in a homosexual act."

According to the report filed by the police officer who arrested Craig at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in June, Craig stood outside the officer's bathroom stall for two minutes, repeatedly looked at the officer "through the crack in the door," sat in the stall next to the officer, tapped his foot and gradually "moved his right foot so that it touched the side of my left foot . . . within my stall area." Craig proceeded to "swipe his hand under the stall divider for a few seconds" three times, palm up, using the hand farthest from that side of Craig's stall. Most of these gestures, the officer said, are known pickup signals.

I feel sorry for Craig, who pleaded guilty three months ago to a charge of disorderly conduct. I hate the idea of cops going into bathrooms and busting people for coded gestures of interest. I'd rather live, let live and tell the guy waving his hand under the stall to buzz off. But that's not the standard Craig has applied to others. Any gay soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who admitted to doing what Craig has admitted would, at a minimum, lose his job for violating "don't ask, don't tell." In fact, many have been kicked out for less.

Most people think "don't ask, don't tell" means that if you don't announce that you're gay, you can keep your job. It should mean that. But in practice, if you don't tell, the military can -- and often does -- investigate and interrogate you until you're forced to tell.

Margaret Witt, a major in the Air Force Reserve, is in the process of being discharged because she is a lesbian. How did investigators find out? An anonymous tip. They tracked down her former partner, a civilian, and got the woman to admit that she and Witt had lived together. When they interrogated Witt, she confessed. If she hadn't, they could have prosecuted her for "false official statements" and imprisoned her for five years. Last fall, a federal judge conceded that Witt had "served her country faithfully and with distinction" and "did not draw attention to her sexual orientation." Nevertheless, he concluded, she had no constitutional grounds for contesting her discharge. If you don't tell, they make you tell.

Six years ago, the Army kicked out Alex Nicholson, an interrogator, under "don't ask, don't tell." How did he disclose his homosexuality? He mentioned it in a letter to a friend -- in Portuguese. A colleague found the letter, translated it and outed him. "Nobody asked me if I was gay and I wasn't telling anyone," Nicholson said. "You would think that a private letter that you had written in a foreign language would be sufficiently safe." But you would be wrong.

Last year, the Army discharged Bleu Copas, a sergeant, from the 82nd Airborne. The basis? Anonymous e-mails. The first time superiors asked Copas whether he was gay, the context was informal, and he denied it. The next time, they put him under formal interrogation -- "Have you ever engaged in homosexual activity or conduct?" -- and he refused to answer. Eventually, to avoid prosecution for perjury, he gave in.

Four days ago, the Record newspaper in Stockton, Calif., reported the recent expulsion of Randy Miller, a paratrooper who served in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne. His offense? Being in a gay bar -- and rejecting a proposition from a fellow soldier, who apparently retaliated by reporting him to the Army. Like Witt, Miller admitted his homosexuality, but only under interrogation. If you don't tell, they make you tell.

Compare any of these cases to Craig's. You cohabit quietly with a same-sex partner for six years. You write a letter to a friend in Portuguese. You deny being gay but are interrogated until you give in. You're spotted in a gay bar rejecting a sexual overture. For these offenses, you lose your career -- thanks, in part, to a man who stared and extended his hands and feet repeatedly into a neighboring bathroom stall.

Were Craig's gestures ambiguous? Not by his own standards. Under the details of "don't ask, don't tell," he'd have to prove that what he did was "a departure from [his] usual and customary behavior," that it was "unlikely to recur" and that he did "not have a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts." But the Idaho Statesman reports three other incidents, from 1967 to 2004, in which Craig allegedly made similar overtures. On the newspaper's Web site, you can listen to an interview in which one of the men describes his tryst with Craig in a public bathroom. These accounts, combined with Craig's arrest report, would easily get him thrown out of the Army if he were a soldier.

Did Craig's arrest chasten him about "don't ask, don't tell"? Not a bit. "I don't believe the military should be a place for social experimentation," he wrote to a constituent two weeks ago. "It is unacceptable to risk the lives of American soldiers and sailors merely to accommodate the sexual lifestyles of certain individuals."

Now you know why Craig tried to withdraw his guilty plea. The cardinal rule of "don't ask, don't tell" isn't heterosexuality. It's hypocrisy. The one thing you can't do is tell the truth.

In that sense, Craig honored the policy in his own life. But that's the only sense. I don't think what he did should cost him his career. I'd like to cut him some slack. But first, I'd like to restore the careers of a few thousand gay Americans who have done a lot more for their country.

William Saletan is national correspondent for Slate, the online magazine at

© 2007 The Washington Post Company