Philly native asks and tells about gays in the military

Dr. Nathaniel Frank has spent much of the last 10 years studying the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers. In his new book, Frank draws from the countless interviews he’s conducted with policymakers, servicemembers and military leaders to provide an in-depth look at the history of the highly criticized policy and trace the destructive and wide-ranging effects of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Frank, a senior research fellow at University of California think-tank The Palm Center and a Philadelphia native, said “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America,” which was published last month by St. Martin’s Press, was the natural culmination of his years of research on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“I’d been working in earnest on the book for the past two or three years, but I don’t remember the time when I first said to myself, ‘I’m going to write this book,’” Frank said. “I had been working closely with [Palm Center director] Aaron Belkin and for years he’s been saying, ‘Well, when you write that book … ’ It may have even started out in jest, but then I realized how necessary it was.”

Frank said LGBT-rights opponents have distorted the real need for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and “Unfriendly Fire” seeks to set the record straight, so to speak, on what really led up to the creation of the ban and how it’s been used to the detriment of thousands of LGBT servicemembers and the entire military.

“There’s been so much myth and fear and misinformation surrounding gays in the military that I thought it would be very helpful to have all the facts and the many compelling stories in one volume,” the author said. “Despite the passions that often highjack a rational debate on this topic, I still think there are fair-minded people who genuinely want to know the facts on this issue. So I thought if it were collected in one readable book, that it could really have an impact.”

Frank said his interest in studying the ban was initially sparked shortly after then-President Bill Clinton signed the bill, a compromise stemming from Clinton’s pledge to lift the ban on gay servicemembers, into law in 1993.

Frank graduated college that year and said he was also beginning to come out himself and accept “how important it is to be able to be open and honest for my own mental health and for the health of my relationships with other people.”

He said the fact that the ban punished servicemembers for doing just that angered him and, coupled with his passion for historical research as a historian-in-training, motivated him to investigate the motives behind and effects of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“History is about uncovering the truth, and this was a law that reflected our nation’s collective inability and unwillingness at times to look at the truth. I was angered, intrigued and ashamed of my country for passing a law that essentially was about sticking its head in the sand.”

In the past eight years, Frank interviewed hundreds of individuals both for his research for the Palm Center and, more specifically, for the book.

While Frank conducted many of the interviews, such as those with numerous policymakers who helped craft the legislation, in formalized atmospheres, he also immersed himself in the military culture during his time spent aboard military ships and in other settings, where he gathered information through casual conversations and first-hand observations.

Frank said that while some sources were eager to provide him details about the “dishonesty and irrationality behind the policy when it was created,” he had to invest a great deal of time and effort for other subjects to share information.

“There were times when, as any journalist knows, you have to press or push and you have to be patient,” he said. “You have to cultivate trust, and that’s something that has to come with time.”

Frank said he’s hopeful that the time he devoted to uncovering the facts about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will help fuel a national conversation about the ban, and about the need for a shift toward a more open culture.

“This is a very specific law, which is damaging for a number of reasons that I tried to chronicle in the book. I’ve argued strongly that this is a bad policy, and I hope this will help shape the debate in a way that allows people to see what the costs are and why we’re better off without it,” he said. “I also have a broader hope, which is that this book will lead to a conversation about the importance of facing different truths in general — not just with respect to gays in the military or gay rights. This policy is a reflection of a burdened past that we’ve been stuck with for too long. Not all countries suffer from this in quite the same way; it’s about choosing concealment and deception and dishonesty over facing uncomfortable truths. Look at the past seven months and the economy: There was a collective willingness for people to live beyond their means because they’re not willing to fact facts. Self-deception has its consequences.”

Frank said he believes the most effective means of deconstructing that deception and repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” lies in a three-pronged approach that includes public education, Congressional lobbying and action on the part of the president.

He said The Palm Center continues to dedicate itself to heightening the public’s awareness of the damaging effects of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and he’s eager for his book to further strengthen that effort. Frank also teamed up with OUTWrite Books in the hopes of placing a copy of “Unfriendly Fire” in the hands of all 542 voting and non-voting members of Congress.

Readers can purchase a second copy of the book for half-price at, which the company will send to Congress to ensure that all lawmakers are aware of the truth about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Frank said he’s already begun personally delivering the 100 copies that have so far been purchased, and he’s hopeful that the book will help lawmakers “allay their own fears so that they can step forward and do what’s right.”

He said that if the Military Readiness Enhancement Act — the bill that seeks to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — cannot get enough Congressional support, President Obama should step in and issue an executive order to end the ban.

“It could be quicker and cleaner than dragging the nation through the protracted debate in Congress. I think Obama may be taking the wrong lesson from the Clinton years; he and others think Clinton’s error was coming out too quickly on the issue, but it was actually Clinton’s delay that allowed the opportunity for opposition forces to rally and defeat him. While Congressional action is ideal, in the absence of that, Obama should consider his executive option.”

Frank will further discuss the history and future of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a panelist in a discussion about the ban from 8:30-9:45 p.m. April 29 at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., as part of the 2009 Equality Forum. Frank will also take part in a question-and-answer session following the screening of “Ask Not,” a documentary about the ban, at 6:30 p.m. May 13 at the WHYY Technology Center, 150 N. Sixth St.

Both events are free.

For more information about the book, visit

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].